Maximizing your 401k Contributions: Nuances to Save you Money

Contributed by: Nick Defenthaler, CFP® Nick Defenthaler

When we’re first starting our careers, we’re always told to at contribute at least the minimum needed to get the full company match in our 401k plans (typically between 4% and 8%, depending on how your plan is structured).  “Never throw away free money!” is a phrase we use quite often with children of clients who are starting their first job out of college. What about, however, those who are well established in their careers, and are fully maximizing 401k contributions ($18,000 for 2017, $24,000 if you’re over the age of 50)? They shouldn’t have to worry about not receiving their full employer match, right? Well, surprisingly, depending on how your 401k plan is structured at work, the answer could actually be yes!  

Let me provide an example to explain what I’m referring to:

Let’s say Heather (age 54) earns a salary of $400,000 and elects to contribute 10% of her salary to her 401k.  Because Heather has elected to contribute a percentage of her salary to her 401k instead of a set dollar figure, she will actually max out her contributions ($24,000) before the end of August each year.  Let’s also assume that Heather receives a 5% employer match on her 401k – this translates into $20,000/yr. ($400,000 x 5%). If Heather does not have what’s known as a “true up” feature within her plan, her employer would stop making matching contributions on her behalf in August – the point at which she maxed out for the year and contributions stopped. In this hypothetical example, not having the “true up” feature would cost Heather nearly $7,500 in matching dollars for the year!

So how can you ensure that you’re receiving the matching dollars you’re fully entitled to within your 401k? 

The first thing I would recommend is reaching out to your benefits director or 401k plan provider and asking them if your plan offers the “true up” feature.  If it does, you’re in the clear – regardless of when you max out for the year with your contributions, you’ll be receiving the full company match you’re entitled to. 

If your plan does not offer the “true up” feature, and you plan on maximizing your 401k contributions for the year, I’d strongly suggest electing to defer a dollar amount instead of a percentage of your salary. For example, if you’re over 50, and you plan on contributing $24,000 to your 401k this year and you’re paid bi-weekly, it might make sense to elect to defer $923.07 every pay period ($923.07 x 26 pay periods = $24,000). By doing so, you’ll ensure you maximize your benefit by the end of December and not end up like Heather, who maxes out before August and potentially loses out on significant employer matching dollars.  

Subtle nuances such as the “true up” 401k feature exist all around us in financial planning and they can potentially have a large impact on the long-term success of your overall financial game plan. If you have questions on how to best utilize your employer’s 401k or retirement savings vehicle, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for guidance.

Nick Defenthaler, CFP® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.® Nick works closely with Center clients and is also the Director of The Center’s Financial Planning Department. He is also a frequent contributor to the firm’s blogs and educational webinars.

Examples are hypothetical and are not representative of every employer's retirement plan. Not all employers offer matching 401(k) contributions. Please contact your employer's benefits department or retirement plan provider for terms on potential matching contributions.