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Retirement comes once, so preparing for it as best as you can be incredibly important. But, preparing for retirement is often much easier said than done. For millennials, this is especially true; in 2018 the average millennial had $25,500 in their 401(k) retirement account. This might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t put them on track to retire in their 60s.

Even worse, nearly two-thirds of millennials haven’t saved anything for retirement. Successfully investing in your retirement requires that you start investing now and stick with it for the long haul.

So, is there anything that can be done now, or is it too late? And are 401(k)s the best route? We’ll share six common 401(k) mistakes millennials make that you can avoid now, plus some retirement account alternatives and supplemental accounts.

What Is a 401(K)?

A 401(k) is a retirement account offered by employers. This tax-advantaged account allows you to make contributions that are tax-deductible, lowering your taxable income for the year. The downside is that withdrawals from this type of account will then be taxed.

Another option is a Roth 401(k), which doesn’t offer the immediate tax-deductible benefit of a traditional 401(k). The upside is that the withdrawals from this type of account are tax-free, which can be especially beneficial if you retire in a higher tax bracket than when you were contributing.

In both cases, some employers may also make matching contributions to your account. For example, if you contribute 5% of every paycheck to your 401(k), your employer will match that 5%, doubling your account’s growth rate.

With the average millennial salary coming in at $35,592, contributing 5% to a 401(k) comes out to $1,780. With an employer match of 5%, that number climbs to $3,560 per year.

Even with no increases in salary or actual investment growth, that annual contribution adds up to about $106,800 in 30 years. This is far from the suggested retirement account, but it puts you much closer than not contributing.

Common 401(K) Mistakes

One of the greatest perks of a 401(k) account is how straightforward it is. You contribute, your employer does or doesn’t match, and your retirement account grows. Some common mistakes are made with these accounts, but they are easy to avoid once you know about them.

1) Failing to Enroll in Your Company’s 401(K)

First and foremost, not enrolling in your company’s 401(k) is arguably the biggest pitfall between you and retirement. Most employers won’t automatically enrol you in a 401(k), so you’ll have to ask your HR head about this.

Furthermore, many employers have a waiting period, meaning you have to be employed with them for a set amount of months before you can set up and make contributions to your 401(k). Ask about this during the hiring phase if you’re starting a new job, and set a reminder on your calendar for the 401(k) start date so you can be sure to enrol as soon as possible.

Also, if you’re intimidated by the prospect of enrolling in a 401(k), you could go to an assisted route using a service like Blooom, which helps you get the greatest return out of your investment.


2) Not Getting the Max Employer Match

Not all employers will match contributions, and even when they do, there’s almost always a maximum amount they’ll match. Make sure you’re contributing enough to get the maximum amount of matching.

For example, if your employer matches 6%, make sure you’re contributing at least 6% to get that maximum match. This can make a drastic impact On your account’s growth, and translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars when compounded over 20 or 30 years.

3) Forgetting to Increase Your Contribution Amount

Sometimes contributing a certain amount just isn’t in the cards. If money is tight and you can only contribute a small percentage, that’s okay.

Even so, it’s important to regularly check your budget and determine if upping your contribution amount is doable or not. If you can afford to increase your percentage of contribution to your account, do it as soon as possible. Again, this can amount to thousands and thousands of dollars over time.

4) Ignoring the Potential of a Roth

Almost 100% of the time, 401(k) accounts offered by employers are a traditional account by default. If you want to go the route of a Roth 401(k), you’ll need to spearhead that effort yourself.

Don’t let this rule out the possibility of a Roth account for you, however, as they can be very beneficial for the right people. If you’re in a role that has a high earning cap, or your career is headed in that direction, consider looking into a Roth account sooner rather than later. If you choose this route, know you’re in good company: 41% of Roth IRA accounts opened with Fidelity in 2018 were owned by millennials.

The fact that withdrawals from a Roth account are tax-free means you’ll be in a far better spot setting one up early when you’re not making as much. This way, if you retire in a much higher tax bracket, you’ll avoid paying hefty taxes on the contributions and reap the benefits of those tax-free withdrawals.


If you’re not already in a position with a high earning cap, consider investing in yourself and pursuing a better career.

5) Cashing Out Your 401(K)

When leaving one company and moving to another, many have the misconception that they need to close out their 401(k). This isn’t the case, as you can roll your account into a new one, or simply leave your 401(k) as is for the time being in some cases.

It’s also tempting to close out your 401(k) if an emergency arises. While the money can help you in a pinch, early withdrawal can cost you thousands and thousands in the long run. This is why it’s important to build an emergency fund, as that money will safeguard you in the event of the unexpected and keep your 401(k) funds intact.

In either event, cashing out your 401(k) can result in a 10% early withdrawal fee, as well as income tax on the amount withdrawn. If you need money from your 401(k) for an emergency, talk to your financial institution about a 401(k) loan. This can allow you to take up to 50% of your 401(k) or $50,000, whichever is less and pay it back through payroll deductions.

Millennials may not have Social Security to rely on at retirement like previous generations, so avoid cashing out your 401(k) if possible.

6) Contributing Over the Limit

Every year, the IRS set a contribution limit for 401(k) accounts. If you go over this limit, you’ll be hit with an excess contribution penalty, which is a 6% tax on the funds contributed over the limit. If you withdraw the money before the tax year ends, you won’t be penalized.

Read up on the latest limits and make sure you stay within them to avoid the hefty penalty. In 2019 the limit for those 49 and under was $19,000.

The IRS won’t notify if you hit the contribution cap, so it’s up to you to monitor your contributions and stay within the limit.

Alternatives to a 401(K)

Building a Nest Egg-401(k)

If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k), or you simply want to supplement your 401(k) in other ways, you’re in luck. There are several alternatives and supplemental accounts that can help you build a healthy retirement now.

A) Traditional IRA

A traditional individual retirement account (IRA) operates a lot like a 401(k) but without any employer involvement. You make contributions, your taxable income is reduced, and your qualified withdrawals are taxed at retirement.

Like a 401(k), there’s a contribution limit to be aware of, so make sure you’re always staying within the limit to avoid excess contribution penalties. You’ll also have to make minimum withdrawals from your account when you reach 70 1/2. This means you can’t leave your entire IRA as a nest egg for your loved ones.

Just like a 401(k), if you have a lot of earning potential with your job or skillset, a traditional IRA may not make as much sense for you as a Roth IRA.

B) Roth IRA

A Roth IRA operates like its 401(k) counterpart. With a Roth IRA, you can make post-tax contributions, build a nest egg, and then enjoy tax-free withdrawals when you retire.

It’s worth noting that you’re never forced to make withdrawals from a Roth account, so you can leave this account to your loved ones long after you’re gone as well.

If you don’t think you’re going to be in a substantially higher tax bracket near retirement, a Roth account may not make sense for you.

C) Brokerage Accounts

Brokerage accounts can be a wise way to invest and build a retirement, but they require varying levels of investment knowledge depending on the route you want to take.

With a brokerage account, you invest your funds through a brokerage firm, which then takes your funds and invests them. This can be a great way to build a diverse portfolio, as they can invest your funds in real estate, stocks, and so on.

If you have a lot of finance and investment knowledge, you can use micro-investing apps or simply fly solo and invest funds on your own. If you’re less familiar or want to play it a little safer, many brokerage firms will offer their services for a fee and simply ask you about your financial goals, and then invest instead of you.

D) Index Funds

Playing the stock market can be risky, stressful, and difficult for the layman. Index funds allow you to reap the benefits of the stock market without all the risk.

When you invest in an index fund, you invest in a collection of stocks that make up an entire market index. For example, if you invest in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, you invest in the 500 companies that make up that index. This reduces the risk that comes with investing in a single company and increases your chances of having stable growth over many years.

Another perk of index funds is that they generally don’t have many fees associated with them, such as the handling fees that can come with brokerage accounts. This allows your money to go further, which again, can translate to thousands over the lifetime of a retirement account.

coins inside a jar labeled emergency funds-401(k)

Build Your Best Future

Retirement may feel like it’s a long way off right now, but it will be here before you know it. Account growth takes time, so getting your retirement account off the ground is more important now than ever.

It’s better to invest something rather than nothing, so even if you can only afford a small amount, get your 401(k) or other account started as soon as possible. You can even consider earning additional income with a part-time weekend job to compensate for adding more into your 401(k). For many years, even the smallest sums can grow into a substantial amount that helps you live your most comfortable life after retiring.


Written By
R.J. Weiss is the founder and editor of The Ways To Wealth, a Certified Financial Planner, husband and father of three. He's spent the last 10+ years writing about personal finance and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg, MSN Money, and other publications.

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