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401(k): Should I participate?

If you are like most people, then you might feel like saving toward and planning for your financial future can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help that there are a huge number of choices and decisions to make. In this brief article, we’re going to explain one of the most common options that you have available to you now: the 401(k) plan.

What is it?

A 401(k) is a “payroll deducted” retirement investment account. This means the money you contribute to the plan is pulled directly from your paycheck and deposited into an account on your behalf. The money is typically invested into mutual funds or similar investments with the hope that it will grow as you continue to work towards your retirement years.

Often, if you choose to save into a 401(k) plan, your employer will offer a “matching” contribution. This means that they’re kicking in additional money on top of what you’re choosing to contribute. Who doesn’t love free money?

How do the taxes work?

You might be aware that a 401(k) plan can offer some tax advantages, so let’s briefly cover what those are. We’ll take a deeper dive into these and talk some strategy in an upcoming article:

Pre-Tax Account

Many 401(k) plans have the option for “Roth” contributions. These types of contributions are taxed before you put them in. Just like the “pre-tax” contributions, “Roth” accounts are not taxed along the way as they grow. However, at the end – unlike a “pre-tax” account – a “Roth” account can be withdrawn tax-free.

Tax Deferral

Both ROTH and Pre-Tax 401(k) accounts offer “tax-deferred” growth along the way. What is this? Tax-deferral is simply the idea that as the investments grow along the way, they will not be taxed. This is different than a regular savings or brokerage account, where your income & gains are taxed each year that they occur. Tax deferral is a huge advantage to you the employee, because it produces dramatically higher ending balances for your retirement funds.


A 401(k) is a long term, retirement account with special tax advantages granted by the IRS. One of the trade-offs for having these tax advantages is that there are penalties for taking the money out too early. In general, 401(k) money is not available for withdrawal until age 59 ½. If you do withdraw the money early, you’ll normally face a 10% penalty plus taxes on the amount you take. There are a few special exceptions to this, but as a guiding principle its best to assume the money you save into your 401(k) is tied up for retirement.

Should You Participate?

As many employers offer a 401(k) plan with matching, the big question that many people ask is “should I participate?“

Since a company-matched 401(k) plan is essentially giving you free money, most employees are tempted to give a resounding “yes” answer to this question. While that is probably the right answer for many folks, there are actually a few situations where you might want to hold off on participating, even if it’s just temporarily.

How Should I Invest?

There are normally two ways to choose your investments in a 401(k) – you can use a “Set it and forget it” option or you can select your own custom portfolio of investments from the investment menu.

A “set it and forget it” option is a type of investment which is on auto-pilot. Most 401(k) plans will offer a “target fund” as their default “set it and forget it” investment. These types of funds are run by a professional manager with predetermined allocation intervals which will automatically adjust (from equites to bonds or a mix thereof) as you get closer to retirement.

Your INVST 401(k) has a second “set it and forget it” option – we have included prebuilt portfolios for you to use. These portfolios maintain a certain risk level as you go along, instead of adjusting like target funds.

If you prefer to invest in certain kinds of assets classes, economies or industries, you can build your own custom set of investments by using the investment menu provided in your enrollment booklet or in your online employee portal.

And what about your investing style? You can be anywhere on the spectrum from conservative to aggressive in your investment efforts, with each carrying different corresponding levels of risk. While more aggressive investments tend to have higher performance over the long-term, they also “move” more during market downturns, which can feel uncomfortable to a conservative investor.

We have created a risk tolerance quiz to help you understand what kind of risks you’re willing to accept and what kinds you want to avoid.

Investing aggressively is generally fine when you’re a several years from wanting to spend from this account. For example, if you’re in your 20s/30s and are starting to invest in retirement, you have 30-40+ years to recover from any losses caused by a dip in the market. You have many years ahead to let your investments rebound and can even see a greater return if you continue to invest into the account while the investment prices are lower.

On the other hand, if you’re close to your retirement age, it’s likely that a conservative approach may be more suitable. You might be tempted to make a mad dash for the finish line and try to end on a high note, but if a market correction comes at the wrong time, it can throw a big wrench into the gears of your plan.

INVST Advisors

As part of your INVST 401(k) experience, you have no-cost access to the expert advisors on our staff. If you would like individual guidance on your situation, please reach out anytime. You can call us at (855) 288-5588.

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