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401(k) Retirement Plans

By: Jim Jorgensen

Jim's book, Money Lessons for a Lifetime (published by Dearborn Press), gives readers 36 short lessons Jim has learned in over 30 years on Wall Street and helping people invest. Short stories of actual people to help you learn how to invest.
 There was a time not too long ago when employers saved the money to pay for an employee's pension at retirement. But traditional company-paid pension plans have virtually disappeared today.

In their place is a new retirement system in which employees save part of their wages into a "401(k) account," and the employer may then match these contributions into the employee's account.

What Is a 401(k) Plan?
These plans are named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that authorized them in 1978. They are popular with employers because, unlike company-paid pension plans, they shift much of the financial burden of paying retirement benefits to the employee.

Unlike a defined-pension plan that guarantees a fixed monthly benefit at retirement, 401(k) plans guarantee nothing. The benefits they provide depend entirely on how much cash is in the account at retirement.

An employee who is at least 21 years of age and who has been on the job for at least one year should be eligible to join a company's 401(k) plan and make "salary reduction" contributions. These contributions are tax-deferred except for Social Security and Medicare taxes.

About 85% of employers "match" an employee's contribution. Some 18% of employers match dollar for dollar, about ten percent match between 50 cents and a dollar, about 45% match 50 cents to each employee dollar, and about five percent match 25 cents to the dollar.

The maximum annual deductible contribution for employees is adjusted for inflation each year and it is currently about $9,500, or 15 percent of salary, whichever is less.

The total contributions of the employee and the company to an account may not exceed 15% of salary or $22,500, whichever is less.

Differences Between a Pension and a 401(k) Plan
A key difference between a traditional pension plan and a 401(k) plan is that traditional pension plans are completely paid for by the employer and employees do not participate in the investment decisions of the plan. However, a typical 401(k) plan is mostly paid for by the employee and the plan is self-directed.

That is, the employee also makes the investment decisions (within the limits of the plan).

Under U.S. Labor Department rules, employers who offer 401(k) plans are not responsible for employees' poor investment decisions as long as they offer at least three diversified investment options and allow shifts of assets among the options at least once each quarter.

A typical 401(k) plan might include the following choices:

Fixed savings funds (a guaranteed investment contract, or GIC, a money market account, or a savings account).
Bond mutual funds.
Stock (equity) mutual funds.
Employer's company stock.
How to Invest in Your 401(k) Plan
The most important point to keep in mind is that 401(k) plans are for long-term retirement savings. Therefore, most people should put at least 80% of their money into stock mutual funds.

Over the long term, stock funds have outperformed fixed-income investments by about three to one. Over the past 15 years, good stock funds have returned about 15% a year, allowing you to double your money every five years.

When You Leave Your Employer
In a 401(k) plan your employer's matching contributions fall under the plan's vesting schedule. Your contributions are always 100% vested. You are also 100% vested if you become disabled or the employer's plan is terminated.

The two principal vesting schedules are:

Instant vesting. No vested interest in employer contributions for five years, then the employee is 100% vested thereafter.
Gradual vesting. No vesting for the first two years, then a gradual accumulation of 20% a year; in seven years the employee becomes 100% vested.
If you plan to leave your job, you should check your company's vesting schedule and your plan's anniversary date in order to maximize your vested interest.

You should also plan to roll over the money in your 401(k) plan to an IRA. Current laws require your employer to withhold 20 percent of your money for taxes if you don't roll over the money directly to an IRA.

Your best bet is to roll over your 401(k) assets into your current IRA, or open a new IRA and ask the IRA trustee to write your employer and have your money transferred directly to the IRA.

If you do take possession of your money, you have 60 days to roll it over into an IRA, but your employer must still withhold 20 percent for taxes. You can later get a refund on your tax return if you make a complete rollover of the lump-sum distribution.

If you fail to roll over the money into an IRA, you'll face ordinary income taxes on the amount received and, if you are under age 59 1/2, you will also incur a federal tax penalty of ten percent. Many states also impose a tax penalty. In California, for example, the penalty is 2.5%.

If you are 55 or older, however, and you leave your job (you don't need to retire), you can cash out your 401(k) assets without a tax penalty and you can still roll over some of the assets to your IRA (IRAs don't have this feature until you reach age 59 1/2).

Borrowing from a 401(k) Plan
Almost two-thirds of employers allow employees to borrow up to 50 percent of their vested 401(k) plan account balance, up to a maximum of $50,000. Borrowing from your 401(k) plan is usually permitted for emergency medical expenses, home purchases, "hardships," and college expenses.

The money you borrow is not taxable income because you must repay the loan, usually through monthly or quarterly payroll deductions over five years. If you use the money to purchase a home, you might be able to take as long as 15 or 20 years to repay the loan. Your loan repayments and interest costs, like most other loan repayments, are not tax deductible.

The bad news is that if you leave your employer for any reason, the entire loan becomes due and payable on your departure. If you can repay the loan from other funds, you should certainly do so.

If you fail to repay the loan, the unpaid balance will be considered an "early withdrawal" from the plan and (unless a new employer agrees to take it on) will be subject both to regular income taxes and, if you are under age 59 1/2, the tax penalties described above.

Start Your Own Stock Fund
If all mutual funds look to you like alphabet soup, if you'd like to avoid stock brokers and financial planners, or if you'd like to build your own retirement portfolio, doing it yourself may be the best route for you. Investing in so-called No-Load Stocks is a great way to build a retirement nest egg. The name "no-load" comes from the fact that when you buy stocks directly from a company you are not charged fees or commissions.

In addition, some companies discount the price of the shares they sell you so that you are buying below the current market price. Some corporations even offer special deals on their products or services to their shareholders.

You can also start a program for your children or grandchildren, or later transfer some of your shares to them. For everyone, it's a great way to learn about shareholders rights and opportunities.

Charles Carlson, author of several books on buying stocks directly from companies, says "Buying stocks without a broker is like a free lunch on Wall Street. It's the single best way for the do-it-yourself investor to accumulate stocks in quality companies."

Buying stock directly from a company is nothing new; many companies sell shares to current shareholders through direct purchase or dividend reinvestment plans. The catch: you must first already own one or more shares in order to play.

Here are some ways to get started:

Direct Purchase Plans
One way to buy that first share of stock is to pick out some blue-chip companies that sell initial shares directly to the public. Once you buy a share, most of these companies will allow monthly purchases of $10 to $50 or more. Dozens of large companies sell initial shares directly to the public; the chart at the bottom of the page lists a few of them.

First-Time Purchase Plans
But how do you get that first share of a company's stock if the company will only sell directly to current shareholders? There are a variety of ways. You can buy the first few shares from a discount broker, but there are a number of groups that will help you buy that first share or two yourself.

National Association of Investors Corporation (NAIC)
This is the group that offers information on starting and operating an investment club. NAIC has agreements with 142 companies to sell first shares. To use its services, you must become a member of NAIC and pay a $35 annual fee. You then also receive a subscription to its magazine, Better Investing, and a manual on investors' clubs.

Here's how NAIC's first-share plan works: If a stock sells for $25 a share, NAIC requires an additional $10 to be added to that price, so $35 is earmarked for investment. The additional $10 is to allow for price fluctuations and assures that a minimum of one share plus a fraction of a share is purchased. Your order is at the prevailing price at the time of purchase.

You will not receive a stock certificate for each purchase, but rather a statement showing the number of shares, including fractional shares, and any dividends credited to your account. NAIC charges another $5 as a service fee for each company.

To learn more about NAIC's program, call 1-810-583-6242, or write NAIC, 711 West 13 Mile Road, Madison Heights, MI 48071.

First Share
This firm offers a "matchmaking" service that enables people with shares to sell to hook up with those who want to buy them. First Share charges an $18 annual membership fee, and $10 for each transaction. The current stockholder who sells the shares can also charge an additional $7.50 per share over the market price. To learn more about First Share, call 1-800-683-0743, or write to 103 South Second Street, Box 222, Westcliffe, CO 81252.

DRIP Programs
Once you own some shares in a company, many will allow you to join a Dividend Reinvestment Plan, or DRIP, and automatically use your dividends to purchase more shares directly from the company. Often the shares sold to you will be at a discount from the prevailing market price, and most companies with DRIPs will allow you to purchase additional shares over and above those you can buy with your dividends. Most will also sell your shares at any time.

Hold the Stock in Your Name

If you want to avoid brokers' commissions and fees, you will need to hold any stocks you buy in your own name. Most people who buy stocks from a broker have the broker hold them in "street name," or in the name of the broker for the buyer. Most companies that sell stocks directly and offer DRIP plans will keep the shares in your name, or you may take delivery and keep them in a safe place.

IRA Plans

Many companies offer IRA programs and act as your IRA trustee. They can also make automatic withdrawals from your checking account to purchase more shares. The monthly minimum for such automatic IRA purchases is usually between $25 and $50.

How to Learn More
I recommend Charles Carlson's Buying Stocks Without a Broker (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) and his No-Load Stocks (McGraw-Hill, $14.95). Carlson has also authored the Directory of Dividend Reinvestment Plans, a 1995-96 workbook. It lists all the companies that sell stocks directly to individuals and outlines how you can participate in DRIP plans. It costs $15.95, which includes shipping and handling. To order the Directory, call Charles Carlson directly at 1-219-931-6480 or write to him at 7412 Calumet Avenue, Hammond, IN 46324. Carlson's other books mentioned above are in the book stores.

A Note of Caution
Buying shares directly from a company and using a DRIP plan to reinvest your dividends is a successful strategy only if you believe the company will do well in the future and you intend to hold your shares long-term. These plans, however, do allow you to start building an investment program at a very low cost. You'll be surprised at how your portfolio can grow in value over time even if you invest just a few dollars each month.

Would you like to make one million dollars on less than $3 a day? In It's Never Too Late To Get Rich: The secrets of building a nest egg at any age, Jim Jorgensen explains how in just a few minutes a day, by taking easy, virtually painless steps, readers can squeeze enough "extra" money out of their budget to build substantial savings that can grow into real wealth.

From his 30-years on Wall Street, he tells you exactly what you need to know about investing in stocks, bonds, mutual funds and real estate, avoiding debt of all kinds, minimizing your taxes, insuring and protecting yourself and your family, planning for retirement, and putting your savings plan into action.

The chapters cover The Basic Rules for Financial Success, Investor's Pitfalls, Building a Nest Egg, The Cost of Credit Cards, Protecting Yourself and Your Family, Delaying Taxes to Retirement, Finding a Financial Planner, and Managing Your Money.

Buy the Book

What you can do to learn about money:
Jim's newsletter It's Your Money is only $28 for a 6-month subscription.

Or take advantage of this special offer:

A 3-month subscription to It's Your Money, plus a copy ofMoney Lessons for a Lifetime, just $28 -- a $10 savings.

There is one thing, however, you can't see on the Web... the 20-year old newsletter comes with a 100% money-back guarantee on all unmailed issues (but it's there).

To place an order call 1-800-701-SAVE, or e-mail your order with Visa or Mastercard number, exp date, and phone number to Or visit his Web site at

Jim is also host of a nationally syndicated radio program (for stations and times in your area see the web site) and syndicated newspaper columnist. Join Jim on his Web site: for personal finance, freebies, contests, and a lot more.

Whatever your financing needs,
we will tailor a loan that's right for you.

Rate Est. APR
30 Year Fixed
5.000% 5.094%
15 Year Fixed
4.75% 4.911%
3/1 ARM
4.25% 4.340%
3 Year Interest Only
4.375% 4.465%
*may include points
Today's Real Estate News

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Today's Home Buyer News

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