How an Employer 401(k) Match Works

Whether your retirement plans involve writing your memoir from a lovely little seaside cottage, a heated game of bocce against your (*ahem* sore loser) neighbor, or hitting up every farmers market in a 50-mile radius, a 401(k) is one savings strategy you can use to save money to get you there.

Simply put, a 401(k) is a mechanism for saving retirement funds by making pre-tax contributions through deductions from payroll. Some plans offer a 401(k) employer match, which can be the equivalent of getting “free money” from an employer.

A Quick Breakdown on 401(k) Plans

A 401(k) is an investment plan many employers offer their employees as a way to save for retirement. Employees can contribute either a percentage of or predetermined amount from each paycheck and, in some cases, the contributions can be matched by the employer up to a certain amount.

These deferred wages, also called “elective deferrals,” aren’t typically subject to federal income tax withholding, and are not listed as taxable income on the employee’s annual return.

If someone is self-employed, they can contribute to a one participant 401(k) plan plan with the same rules and requirements as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. Similarly, 457(b) plans can be used for public sector employees, and 403(b) plans for public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations.

Advantages of Participating in a 401(k)

A few advantages to participating in a 401(k) :

1. Investment gains and elective deferrals to 401(k) plans are not subject to federal income tax until they’re distributed, which is typically when:

•   The participant reaches the age of 59½
•   The participant becomes disabled, deceased, or otherwise has a severance from employment
•   The plan terminates and no subsequent plan is established by the employer
•   The participant incurs a financial hardship

2. Elective deferrals are 100% vested. The participant owns 100% of the money in their account, and the employer cannot take it back or forfeit it for any reason.

3. Participants choose how to invest their 401(k). The plans are mainly self-directed, meaning participants decide how they’d like to invest the money in their account. This could mean mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) which invests in a wide array of sectors and companies, but typically doesn’t include investing in individual companies and stocks.

Investment tactics might vary from person to person, but by understanding their goals, investors can decide whether their portfolio will have time to withstand market ups and downs with some high-risk, high-reward investments, or if they should shift to a more conservative allocation as they come closer to retirement.

What About 401(k) Vesting Schedules?

“Vesting ” means “ownership” in a retirement plan. The employee will vest, or own, some percent of their account balance. In the case of a 401(k), being 100% vested means they’ve met their employer’s vesting schedule requirements to ensure complete ownership of their funds.

Vesting schedules, determined by 401(k) plan documents, can lay out certain employer vesting restrictions that range from immediate vesting to 100% vesting after three years to a schedule that increases the vested percentage based on years of service. Either way, all employees must be 100% vested if a plan is terminated by the employer or upon reaching the plan’s standard retirement age.

How Does a 401(k) Match Work?

A 401(k) match is an employee benefit that allows an employer to contribute a certain amount to their employee’s 401(k) plan. The match can be based on a percentage of the employee’s contribution, up to a certain portion of their total salary or a set dollar amount, depending on the terms of the plan.

Not all employers offer this benefit, and some have prerequisites for participating in the match, such as a minimum required contribution or a cap up to a certain amount.

Meeting with an HR representative or a benefits administrator is a one way to get a better idea of what’s possible. Learning the maximum percent of salary the company will contribute is a start, then the employee can set or increase their contribution accordingly to maximize the employer match benefit.

Benefits of a 401(k) Employer Match

According to a report from Fidelity Investments , the average employer 401(k) match reached a record high of 4.7% in 2019 and “boosted the average total savings rate to an all-time high of 13.5%.”

Many employees are taking advantage of this benefit. Some reasons they could benefit:

It’s Basically “Free Money”

An employer match is one part of the overall compensation package and another way to maximize the amount of money an employer pays their employees. Those employees could be turning their backs on free money by not contributing to an employer-matched 401(k) plan.

Reducing Taxable Income

According to FINRA , “with pre-tax contributions, every dollar you save will reduce your current taxable income by an equal amount, which means you will owe less in income taxes for the year. But your take-home pay will go down by less than a dollar.”

If a participant contributed $1,500 a year to a 401(k), they’d only owe taxes on their current salary minus that amount, which could save some serious money as that salary grows.

The Most Common Employer Match Formulas

Not all employer matches are created equal.

According to a recent report from Vanguard , “How America Saves,” among the 150 distinct match formulas administered through their employer-matched 401(k) plans in 2018:

•  70% of plans used a single-tier match formula, with the most commonly cited being $0.50 on the dollar on the first 6% of pay.
•  21% of plans used multi-tier match formulas, e.g., dollar-on-dollar on the first 3% of pay and $0.50 on the dollar on the next 2% of pay.

A Sample Employer Match 401(k) Scenario

For the sake of breaking a few things down, here’s a retirement saving scenario that can illuminate how 401(k) matching works in real life:

Let’s say a person is 30 years old, with a salary of $50,000, contributing 3% of their salary (or $1,500) to a 401(k). Let’s also say they keep making $50,000 and contributing 3% every year until they’re 65. They will have put $52,500 into their 401(k) in those 35 years.

Now let’s say they opt into an employer match with a dollar-for-dollar up to 3% formula. Putting aside the likelihood of an increase in the value of the investments, they’ll have saved $105,000— with $52,500 in free contributions from their employer.

That’s a no-cost way to increase retirement savings by 100%.

How Much Should a Participant Contribute?

The average 401(k) employee contribution amount, according to Fidelity , reached a record level of $2,370 in 2019. Still, there’s no across-the-board amount that will work for everyone.

When deciding how much to contribute to a 401(k) plan, many factors might be considered to take advantage of a unique savings approach:

•   If a company offers a 401(k) employer match, the participant might consider contributing enough to meet whatever the minimum match requirements are.
•   If a participant is closer to retirement age, they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what they already have saved and what they need to reach their retirement goals. An increase in contributions can make a difference, and maxing out their 401(k) might be a solid strategy.

A retirement calculator can also be helpful in determining what the right contribution amount is for a specific financial situation.

Are There 401(k) Contribution Limits?

In addition to the uncertainty that can come with choosing how much to contribute to a 401(k), there’s the added pressure of potential penalties for going over the maximum 401(k) contribution limit.

Three common limits to 401(k) contributions :

1. Elective deferral limits: Contribution amounts chosen by an employee and contributed to a 401(k) plan by the employer. In 2020, participants can contribute up to $19,500.

2. Catch-up contribution limits: After the age of 50, participants can contribute more to their 401(k) with catch-up contributions. In 2020, participants can make up to $6,500 in catch-up contributions.

3. Employer contribution limits: An employer can also make contributions and matches to a 401(k). The combined limit (not including catch-up contributions) on employer and employee contributions in 2020 is $57,000.

If participants think their total deferrals will exceed the limit for that particular year, the IRS recommends notifying the plan to request the difference (an “excess deferral ”) “be paid out of any of the plans that permit these distributions. The plan must then pay the employee that amount by April 15 of the following year (or an earlier date specified in the plan).”

Getting Started With Investing

Real, human advisors are a great outlet for discussing financial situations and potentially finding a retirement planning strategy that works for each investor (remember that beachside cottage?).

Opening a SoFi Invest® account lets you get started with as little as $1 and comes with complimentary access to financial advisors who are held to the highest fiduciary standards, meaning they’re required to act on your best interests. Try an exploratory conversation at no cost.

Start saving for retirement with SoFi Invest.



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How to File for a Tax Extension

This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Depending on your financial circumstances, you might have a lot of paperwork to get in order before April 15. If you feel like you just need more time, it is possible to file for an extension on your federal tax return.

But there are considerations to keep in mind. Most important, filing for an extension on your return does not mean you have more time to pay the taxes you owe. That money is still due to the government on the regular due date, and you may incur penalties if the payment is late.

Here’s what you need to know to file a tax extension for tax year 2020.

What Is a Tax Extension?

A tax extension extends the deadline for filing your federal tax return by six months, making the new due date Oct. 15. All you have to do to get an extension is file IRS Form 4868 by April 15.

Form 4868 from the IRS website, fill it out, and mail it in, along with a check for estimated income taxes owed. The document itself includes information about where to send the document, depending on where you live.

If you’re filing electronically with a tax preparation software product or using the services of a professional accountant, they can help you file for an extension using their system.

Finally, if you use the IRS’s electronic payment system, you don’t need to file Form 4868 to request an extension. According to the form itself, “The IRS will automatically process an extension of time to file when you pay part or all of your estimated income tax electronically.” This applies to both online and telephone payments.

Can I File for a Tax Extension If I Owe Money?

Yes, you can still file for a tax return extension if you owe the government money—but the money itself is still due on the original due date.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to file for an extension of taxes owed. Rather, you should pay as much as you can of your estimated taxes when you file for the extension on the return, and then contact the IRS directly to learn about your options for complete repayment.

How to Know If You Owe Taxes

You may be wondering whether or not you owe taxes to the government at all—and if so, how to find out how much. While self-employed individuals must estimate their taxes and pay on a quarterly basis, those who file using W-2 wage reports may not often do this kind of taxation math.

online tax account system that allows you to see how much you owe in taxes simply by logging in. This user profile also allows you to pay any owed taxes directly and takes only a few minutes to set up.

Finally, you can always call the IRS at 800-829-1040 to confirm any amount of back taxes you might owe.

The Takeaway

Filing for a tax extension isn’t difficult, it turns out—and indeed, many tax time to-dos aren’t actually that hard. It’s all about getting the knowledge you need to get things done right the first time. (And, OK, maybe a bit of Virgo-esque organization.)

That’s why SoFi put together a comprehensive resource portal for all things Tax Season 2021, from understanding how your student loans might affect your taxes to figuring out which of your retirement contributions are tax-deductible.

Ready to turn tax time into a breeze? Check out the Tax Season 2021 Guide today.


Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
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Source: sofi.com