What Percentage of My Income Should I Contribute To A 401k Plan?

Actually, a better question is what percentage of your income should you contribute to all types of retirement plans? But the 401(k) plan is one of those cases when you have to choose something to start out with, and many people just never get around to changing it again. Too much, and your cashflow will get tight and uncomfortable. Too little, and you’re not taking full advantage of the tax benefits.

Start With The Match
As everybody says, matching contributions from your employer will probably offer the best return-on-investment you’ll ever get. Most companies have a cap after which the match stops, and my guess is that most people contribute up to that cap and then forget about it. Certainly, this number provides a floor, but most of us will have to chip in some more to accumulate a happy nest egg. (I’ve never heard of a match above 6% of pay, although I’m sure some exist.)

Take Into Account Other Accounts Like Roth IRA
The reason people like Roth IRAs is that if you think your tax situation now will be about the same as in retirement, the Roth IRA has a lot of extra advantages like the ability to make early withdrawals for a variety of reasons, as well the ability to never make any withdrawals and leave it to your heirs still compounding away. However, if you have a Roth 401(k) the difference gets a lot slimmer, you may just go with which one offers you better investment choices. Either way, it’s good to consider the whole picture.

Mint.com allows you to compare different IRA accounts available online … if you want to see how your IRA stacks up against what’s available, you should check them out.

Taken all together, I would say 10% would be good place to start unless you have a pension or other sources of retirement income lined up. But that’s just me… what do you think?

Each 1% More Can Make A Big Difference
On top of that 10%, it’s interesting to see how much difference nudging it up another 1% can do. I used this Increase 401k Contribution Calculator from Wachovia and ran some numbers. Assuming you make $50,000 gross annually, you’re 35, you retire at 65, 8% annual return, and a 25% income tax bracket, here’s what happens if you increase your contribution percentage by 1% (unmatched):

altext
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Not too bad for giving up just $31 per month; if you’re younger the payoff is even better. (Almost good enough to bump up your contributions by 1% today?) Still, start taking enough $31s out and it’ll start to hurt.

Give Until It Hurts?
To find the nice balance, there are a couple of ways to do it:

  1. Analyze your finances, estimate a percentage, and just adjust from there. (More work.)
  2. Start at match %, and keep increasing the % until it starts to hurt.
  3. Start at a high amount (20%? 25%?), and keep decreasing it until your take-home pay is a manageable amount.

Each person probably has a different preference. But again, we go back to the real-life aspect – Will you remember to change your percentages later? Life gets busy, and each month you just keep forgetting and forgetting… In that case perhaps the third option is best, assuming you have some cushion to pay with.

Comments

  1. I use the give until it hurts method. It is much easier for someone who is young and far from retirement to ask “how much can I afford to contribute” rather than “how much do I need to contribute”. It’s just too hard to predict. I started at a reasonable number (12%) and kept adjusting up until I felt it was balanced (15%). There is no penalty for changing it, so that is nice.

  2. For some reason, we are capped at contributing 15%, so that is where I am at.

    BTW, my company matches 7% (1-to-1)! I’ve never heard of anyone else with that good of a match, so I consider myself lucky.

  3. I am currently using the give until it hurts method and trying to max out the contribution. What kind of investments do you suggest for people who aren’t eligible for a Roth IRA?

    The anytime withdrawal of the principal benefits of a Roth are huge! I didn’t find any other investment option for people who aren’t eligible for a Roth.

    Cheers!

  4. I signed up for 10% and never looked back. Probably should be increasing it but, hey I’m young, right?

  5. I am fortunate I work for private university and I donate 5% and they fund 8%. Not to shabby. Too bad they don’t pay more!!!

  6. Yeah, I’m in the same boat. My new employer doesn’t match, so I just fully funded my Roth IRA last month and now I’m trying to decide what percent to do for a non-matching 401k.

    What about saving for a home? Shouldn’t that affect what amount you’re contributing to retirement (assuming your young and not a home owner)?

  7. Another way of looking at number 3 is to start with the maximum amount (a source I just found put this figure at $15,500 for 2007) and work your way back ward. For most people, this will be a significant portion of their current income. I think it’s helpful to know at what point you can’t contributed any more, as well as at what point you, theoretically, should set as the floor for contribution amounts.

  8. I take advantage of the ability to adjust the amount regularly. While I never go below the match amount, I try to keep my contribution high enough to be right at the pain threshold.

    That means that if I have a short term goal that I am saving for, I take my 401k down a notch. Once I pass that goal, it goes right back up. I’ve had my percentage vary from 6% to 20% at different times.

    DJ – If there is no match, your options open up a bit. Unless you really like the choices in your 401k, you may be just as well served by starting with contributions to your IRA. Then, once you’ve maxed out your IRA, switch to your 401k for the higher limits.

  9. I’m in my first job and didn’t realize the great benefits my employer offered until I started reading your blog. The nonprofit that I work for kicks in 10% into my 403(b) without a required match or vesting period. When I was first hired I decided since I hadn’t contributed to retirement for the first three years of my “working life” (I was in the Peace Corps after college and then travelled for awhile) that I would contribute 10% to match theirs. My retirement account has been growing the past couple of years and will soon reach over the 40k mark. I think I’ll keep it at 10% until I leave this place in about 1 year after I get my masters.

    By the way 3 months after I was hired they changed the vesting period (now over 5 years) and their match (5% match, not 10%). They also cut the vacation/sick time in half. I guess I made it in just in time since I was grandfathered in!

  10. DJ Milk Says:
    But what happens when your employer does not offer any kind of match?

    The 401k is a pre-tax deduction while the Roth IRA is post tax money. Because of this advisors typically say “get the 401k match, max the Roth, then max the 401k.” That way you end up with reasonable retirement savings and also more take home pay.

    Without a match, my thoughts are:

    If you have a tight budget go with the 401k because with the tax deduction you’ll have more in your pocket…NOW…and some money later.

    If you think you’ll need money in the next 5-10 years (e.g., buying a house) go heavy on the Roth IRA before the 401k. It’s more flexible for withdrawals, but you could also leave the money in for retirement if you decide against the house or end up with extra money.

    If you have a safe cushion for savings and aren’t sure about the future (e.g., school, marriage, long term income levels, etc.) then split your savings evenly between the 401k and the Roth.

    ———————–

    Savings level: I used to calculate my bare monthly costs, added in enough for a decent vacation and $1,000 or $2,000 for fun/toys, then saved as much as possible. If you suddenly find you can’t afford that level for a 401k then drop your contributions for a month or two.

    Now I’m at max for both the 401k and Roth, so I calculate backward to find the percentage to put in the 401k.

  11. With all this talk on this blog recently about retirement vs non-retirement savings and different types of retirement accounts, I have this question:

    I am 24 so I have a long time until I retire (or at least withdrawal retirement funds without penalty). I make about $65k / year. I save 25% of my gross income (32% of takehome). I have an individual brokerage account, a Roth IRA, and a 401k. Because I switched employers the 401k currently offers me no match.

    Obviously I will contribute to my 401k up to whatever match my company offers me, because that is free money. Also, it seems that everyone on this blog agrees that without a match, the Roth IRA should be a higher priority than the 401k. Right now I have been putting almost nothing into retirement (my Roth and 401k are up to about $8k combined), and instead putting everything into my individual brokerage account (its at about $36k). The reason I am so anti-retirement at this age I want to either A) invest in real estate other than my primary residence or B) start my own business. Both of these options can require start up funds and at minimum include a decent amount of risk that, if my savings were in retirement would be accessed at a penalty. Maybe I feel this way because I do not know all the details regarding early distributions and loans off retirement funds, etc. The Roth IRA is compelling because I do beleive that I’m at a much lower tax rate than I will be in later on in retirement (also why anything above the match on a 401k is uncompelling).

    Given all of that, do you guys think I should max out my Roth IRA every year while I’m young (and make less than $100k) and stick the rest in my individual brokerage? I expect to grow my retirement and non-retirement savings to at least $100k in the next 3 years, but at the same time, might need a good $60k of those funds for real estate or a business within that time period.

    Also, I read a couple days ago that Roth IRA distributions before age 59.5 can be taken with no penalty. Is this only after the 5-year period following the account’s inception? I have only had mine for 3 years and looks like I can’t get any distributions without at penalty and don’t know why.

    Thanks all!

  12. My company recently offered Roth 401K contributions. Can I contribute to both a Roth 401K and a Roth IRA in the same year (assuming I meet that Roth IRA income limits)? Thanks.

  13. One rule I’ve always lived by, and I’m still young at 29, is to make sure you take 50% of all pre tax increases and add it to your retirement accounts. It’s amazing how fast it grows and because it’s only 50% of your increase your paycheck still goes up.

  14. I used Hal’s method as mentioned above. I just recently quality for 401k with my employer, and at age 24 without many expenses such as kids, a mortgage, or maintaining a nice car I decided to put in 25% of my salary for the 401k. I’m also looking into opening a 401k Roth and maxing that out.

    I don’t know anyone else my age in their 20s going nuts on the 401k, but reading financial blogs and seeing how people in their 40s and even 30s wishing they started earlier has been a great influence

  15. I am the guy who continues to adjust. My employer offers a 5% match, so when I started, I pulled out 5% – it was all I could afford, after taking a pay cut to take this job. I have since increased by 1% each time I have gotten a raise/promotion and am now contributing 10%. I also set up an automatic draft into my ING account of 10% of my paycheck, so I am saving nearly 25% of my gross – which, I guess, is not all that bad.

    The key is starting…and starting young. There is nothing more powerful, financially, than compounding. I have made a few financial mistakes in my life, but funding a retirement account early and continuing to contribute even when times were tough is one of the things that I have done right.

  16. I’m at about 20% and it sorta hurts. My company matches 50% up to the max on 401k and then I add in on extra and have a roth, etc.

  17. Assuming a simple scenario where all growth is tax deferred, you can create a mode that looks like so:

    * 85% of today’s 50K salary = 42.5K in retirement
    * Inflation at 3.5% over 30/35/40 years = 119K/142K/168K
    * Social Security might cover 15% of that amount???
    * Lumpsums requred at 30/35/40 years = 2.5M/3M/3.6M

    At 10% annualized returns over the long-term, here’s the percentage of salary you need to save to have enough to retire depending on how long your career is:
    * 30 years = 27%
    * 35 years = 20%
    * 40 years = 15%

    Those numbers look pretty daunting. Part of it is the 15% Social Security number I used. The estimates for current retirees is 20%-35% (where 20% is for high income earners). At 35%, these numbers drop to:
    * 30 years = 20%
    * 35 years = 15%
    * 40 years = 11%

    Much better but it’s a HUGE unknown banking on Social Security replacing 35% of your retirement income. The other option is to make 15% SS become 35% by reducing your lifestyle.

  18. Nice post. Re: I?ve never heard of a match above 6% of pay, although I?m sure some exist.) — my co. matches 100% up to 7.75% of your salary. I plop in another 8.25% to even it out at 16%. Plus they have a traditional pension plan. Not bad.

  19. MobileDeveloper says:

    Peth and others, just a word of caution on the Company Match.
    If you reach the IRS limit for the 401K BEFORE the end of the year (last paychek) then the company does NOT put its share.
    For example:
    Assuming your company does a 5% match.
    if you put say 25% into your 401K every month and you reach the IRS 2007 limit of $15,500 by Oct (this month), that is counting your part of the contribution only, then for the months of Nov and Dec you will loose the 5% of the company match. The Payroll will not deduct any more money for the 401K, since you have reached the IRS limit, that means for that paycheck your contribution would be 0% and the company will match the 0% with 0% !!

    So make sure you reach the IRS 401K limit for the 401K contribution in the LAST paycheck of the year (if your company is doing a % match), not before that.

    Thanks.

  20. I have to put in 2.5% to get 8%, but anything past the 2.%% does not get matched. I will stick with that for 6 months to a year, and see how the 2045 fund performs comapred to the 5%+ CD that I put the rest of my savings in, and see how I can adjust.

  21. an0nam00se says:

    MobileDeveloper: You are not neccessarily correct. Not all 401k plans are equal. If someone’s 401k plan has a ‘true up’ match, then you can put in the 15,5000 IRS limit in the first half of the year, and still get the 12 months of employee match. This depends on your company offering the ‘true up’ match.

    Unfortunately I can’t find a definitive source on explaining True-Up matching. But here’s some more reading for you:

    http://www.myretirementblog.com/what-is-401k-true-up-matching.html
    http://forum.freeadvice.com/showthread.php?t=240184
    http://benefitslink.com/boards/index.php?showtopic=12492

    Talk to your company’s 401k plan administrator and ask them.

  22. MobileDeveloper:

    I asked our CFO. At my company you can put in the max 15,500 and the company will add in $7,750 to match it.

  23. I agree with Hal in working backwards from the 401k ceiling. second, people forget, at least no one mentions it, that your 401k contributions reduces your tax burden now. if contributing the 401k max puts you into a lower bracket, then that is also something to consider. so it will vary from person to person whether 401k without match versus roth is best.

    definitely check with your 401k administrator, because plans are different.

    PTam, you should develop a budget with short, mid and long term goals and plug in the numbers. if the numbers don’t work out, you might have to delay some goals or fund goals with money from other goals, in which case those other goals’ timeline would be extended, too. you can withdraw distributions equal to contributions from roth without tax and penalty, but why? You shouldn’t be going into a roth for the purposes of withdrawing from it. It defeats the benefits of having a roth.

    i don’t think it is an either or situation with 401k and IRA. if you have to means to max out both then do so.

  24. i’m not a fan of give until it hurts, this puts you in an unnecessary bind. work backwards from the ceiling and see what is affordable in your budget and according to your plans and goals. for people who have regular income on biweekly or monthly basis, it should be easy to determine what you can afford.

  25. MobileDeveloper says:

    Thanks to an0nam00se for sharing the links that explain true-up matching, I have to admit my company does not do True-up Matching, it only does matching contribution up to 4.5%.

    So please check with your company, if they offer True-Up or just “matching” contribution; and then plan your 401K based on that.

    I have worked for 2-3 companies till now, and they did not offer True-Up matching contributions, in fact its the first time I have heard that word. Thanks!

  26. I started with 6% three years ago and with each raise I have added two percent. Since I am already accustomed to my monthly income, 2% out of my raise is not noticeable. I also max out my Roth.

  27. Jonathan, you probably won’t be able to make Roth IRA contribution this year since I read earlier that both you and your wife got new jobs with six-figure income. I copied the following from Morningstar:

    “Singles may contribute to a Roth IRA if modified adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $110,000 (in 2007 that increases to $114,000). Married couples filing jointly may contribute as long as their modified AGI is below $160,000 (in 2007 that increases to $166,000). Married filing separate may only contribute if modified AGI is under $10,000.”

    I think the rule penalizes married people. :-( There’s still the non-deductible traditional IRA. Again from Morningstar:

    “You will need to file a Form 8606 when you make nondeductible traditional IRA contributions. (There is a $50 penalty if you should have filed a Form 8606 and did not.) The form lets the IRS know that the money you contribute has already been taxed. Then later, when you take a distribution, you won’t have to pay tax on your contributions. You will owe tax on any earnings when you take a distribution.

    If you’ve made nondeductible traditional IRA contributions in the past and have not filed Form 8606, you may want to amend your prior returns and attach completed Form 8606s.”

    No!!! We never filed any 8606s!!! Now there’s some amendment to do!!!

  28. One important thing to keep in mind when figuring out how much you want to contribute towards a 401(k) versus a Roth IRA is expense ratios. If your job offers you limited, expensive mutual funds (like mine does), you?re better off contributing up to the match and then putting the rest of the money you can afford to put away into a Roth where you can invest the same allocation at a drastically (up to a full percentage) reduced cost.

    That?s like adding an extra 1% to your contributions. Plus the flexibility of having both a Roth and the 401(k) is great.

  29. I also contribute 10%. This doesn’t yet work out to the annual maximums. I’ve considered increasing it (and your 1% argument is a strong one), but my wife is a law student and so I’m the only one bringing an income now. Once she starts working next year, our plan is this:

    - Have her contribute at some very high percentage (her firm will allow up to 75% of gross) so that she hits the max very early in the year (I think I calculated something like two months)

    - Once she hits the max, I will up mine to the max contrib rate my company allows (50%)

    The idea is to make all our contributions in the shortest time possible so that they can start earing us money sooner. Also, the huge paychecks for the second half of the year will be great.

    Of course, we will only be able to do this because my wife will be making an ungodly amount of money. I’m very proud.

  30. Kevin Carter says:

    Wow! I must be lucky with employer matches. My previous employer matched 1to1 up to 12% of my income and my current employer matches 1to1 up to 10% of my income…

  31. my company matches dollar for dollar up to 7.3% of your paycheck, so i’ve contributed and left it at 8% from the get go.

  32. Random John says:

    For me it’s simple…

    maximum annual contribution / 24 / annual salary = % contributed

    (that is to say, I just contribute the maximum and ration it out over the year)

    My company makes a floor contribution of 1.5% of gross salary to most employees, not a match, they just put it in there. Highly compensated employees only get a 0.5% floor contribution (I forget what the threshold is for that designation, but it’s pretty low).

    Then they match 50 cents for every dollar up to 6%.

    I’m not allowed to do a Roth.

  33. I don’t know if there is any simple % that one should always meet, but maxing it out each year should be the goal whenever possible. Nice chart to show how much a little extra contribution can do!

  34. this is how it was at my old employer.. 100% vested from day one, match 1 to 1 up to 2% of salary for year one, after 1 year the company automatically contributed 8% of your salary no matter what you did, then matched 1 to 1 up to 2% of your salary…

    i quit there and now work at a place that matches… nothing! …kind of sad, but i enjoy the work a lot more.

  35. Personally I think 401ks are a complete scam. Only contribute to a 401k when you get a match. If there is no match, you will actually end up losing money, because when you retire the government will subtract from your social security benefits if you exceed their limits, which is very very low. So it really doesn’t make sense to save if you actually end up losing from your FICA taxes. Besides how many people really have enough money in their 401k accounts to really retire on after stock crashes, inflation and poor accounting?

  36. Sue – You are on drugs.

    Are you really banking on Social Security as your source of retirement income?

    Also, you pay fica taxes on your gross salary…including the money you defer into your 401k plan. Do you really think the government is going to let you not pay fica on any part of your income when the system is going down in flames.

  37. First of all I want to say thanks to everyone who has posted/replied. I’ve gone from knowing nothing to knowing next to nothing :) Being new to thinking about retirement (and only 23) I’ve got what I believe to be the right amount for me going into my 401K (thanks again for all posts). However, I can’t to my satisfaction understand what each fund is that I can allocate in my 401K. Google’ing each fund leads me to think they are mostly the same with the exceptions of International. My choices are S&P 500 Stock Fund (which I currently have at 100%), Extended Market, International Equity, Bond Index, Balanced fund, and Money Market. I know it’s off topic but any help would be greatly welcome.

  38. Chris,

    Your choices are pretty basic, but there are important differences between them. Here is a quick summary of what each fund probably has to help guide you:

    S&P 500 Stock Fund – These are the large stocks that have the biggest capitalizations. The good news, is this should be an index fund with low expenses (and better returns). It will have little exposure to small companies or international stocks (except for US based multinational companies)

    Extended Market – This is a guess, but is likely to contain mid-cap and small-cap stocks. I am assuming that it is strictly a stock fund too.

    International Equity – This is likely a European and Asian stock fund holding stocks from the most modern stock exchanges outside the US.

    Bond Index – This will hold a mix of government (state, local and federal) bonds and corporate bonds. By mixing different issuers and maturities, this fund may have one of many goals (dividend income, tax-free income, principal preservation, etc.)

    Balanced Fund – This should be a mix of all of the above. It should have large and small stocks, mostly from the US but possibly with some international stocks, bonds and cash are also probably included.

    Money Market – This fund’s main goal is the preserve the value of your money. It is best for short term holdings and not for retirement because while it preserves the money, it will not grow it much at all.

    The right mix of these funds for you will depend a lot on your age, what other assets you have, how much risk you can tolerate, and what your goals are. I will suggest that spreading your saving out across more finds would be beneficial by making you less reliant on a single class of stocks (S&P 500).

  39. Am I being discrimated as a top heavy person? I am a full time employee that is based on yearly contracts. My first year contract I was offered Habor plan 401K. I missed the deadline to sign up. they said they would be penalized if I joined now. I was ok with that. I didnt join. I make 250K annually base. They had offer maxed matching up to 15%, 100% invest immedately and 100% 1to1 matching on every dollar. Its a terrific offer. The next year I tried to opt in but they said I made too much. I know my other collegues make the same amount of salary or more and they are in the 401K plan. I know the harbor plan is complexed. I tried understanding it. I put my notice in to quit but they want me to stay on until end of March of 2008 for three month extension contract. They said I still cant join because its based on annualization but its only a 3 month extension. I have reasons why they are discrimating that I am not mentioning. I want to see if I could join the plan. Are they discrimating not offering the plan to me? At the very least, i should be able to contribute few percentage so i am not top heavy for the company. They want to dramatically low my salary. Please let me know.

  40. You said you hadn’t heard of a match beyond 6%, so I thought I’d mention my employer’s match.

    First, none of this applies until after a year of employment. For every percentage I put into my 403(b) up to 4%, my employer matches 2-to-1 (up to 8%). In addition, my employer adds 2.5%.

    Since I’m a relatively new employee, I only put in 4% to my plan. After acquiring an emergency fund, car, and possibly a house I’ll start putting more in. However, my 4% causes a total input of 14.5%–2.5% base employer contribution plus 4% my contribution plus 8% employer 2-to-1 match.

    Also, this is a Roth 403(b).

    My employer: jhuapl.edu

  41. Is it possible to contribute too much? I have high interest credit cards, and though I do pay more than the minimum each month, my wife and I dedicate more than 26% gross to 401-Ks

  42. I just figured out how much would add up to 15,500/year and set my contribution as close as I could get it to that.

  43. jason –

    That’s all well and nice, I’m glad you’re rolling in the dough. You do need to look up dollar cost averaging though. Putting all that money in your 401k in the first two months of the year is not the best startegy.

  44. kenneth collins says:

    hi, my name is kenny.i’m 40. my year anniversary is 5/16/2009. i was thinking (probably way too late) that i would like too start contributing too my company 401k. they match 2% of whatever i contribute. i make $366.00 on a 40 hour week before taxes. $260.48 after taxes on a 40 hour week. i really don’t have any idea how to calculate all this stuff…i was thinking about contributing 10% too start!will this money be taken out before taxes or after? you said too give till it hurts just thinking about all this contributing to the 401k hurts,but i know i need to start someplce even if i won’t have very much built up. please help as much as you are able!

  45. I’m young and new at this. What does the risk category mean and how do I go about selecting my who will be my investment option? Please help!

  46. Early Retirement says:

    I’m 22 and I’ve been deferring 20% for over a year now and already have over $13K in my account… it hurts though… I’ll have to cut back soon.

  47. my employer offers “matches 25% of the first 6% that an employee contributes.” i’m thinking of opening my 401k… i’m only 22 and wondering if starting off at 7% would be a good idea… i don’t really quite get the whole concept of 401k and neither does my wife… which surprises me since she is one of the smartests people that i know… i love you honey… and well… i was just wondering if 7% would be a good place to start…

  48. Hi, I am 22 years old and I just graduated in Dec with my Bachelors. I was fortunate enough to come out of school with a full time job. I have been researching this 401K stuff and I’m just wondering what percentage of my check should I put towards my 401K. I make about $45000 a year which equals out to about 2700+ a month. For every $1 I contribute my job contributes $1 (up to 3% of my base pay). For every $1 I contribute on the next 3% they contribute $0.50. I just need to know what would be like a good starting oint for me as far as my percentage contribution.

  49. Im 22 and dont have a 401k yet. My employer puts an automatic 0.5% in, so thats a start. theres just too much partying to do, your only young once!!

  50. My employer pays 20 cents on every dollar I contribute up to 10% of my pay. It sounds good but do you think thats a pretty good return? I am not really savy on the retirement note other than the fact that I am 33 and know I have to save. I contribute 6% right now and it hurts. Any thoughts on growing my portfolio?

  51. A helpful calculator for meeting a goal for the year: http://webpages.charter.net/savenow010/401kcalc.html

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