What percentage of my salary should I put into my 401(k)?

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There's no hard-and-fast rule for how much of your salary you should put into your 401(k) account. But, in general, you should always consider contributing as much as possible, depending on your specific financial circumstances.
A combination of factors typically dictates how much you should personally consider contributing to your 401(k) plan account, including:

Increasing your 401(k) contri­butions can add up

Over time, even a seemingly small percentage change in your contributions can make a big dif­ference.
Total amount accumulated over 30 years, based on a hypo­thetical annual salary of $75,000
There's the potential to benefit from saving and investing as much money as possible in a 401(k) account, within certain limits.

Know your maximum contribution limit

Start by understanding how much you're allowed to contribute and work back from there. The maximum contribution limit can change annually. In addition, your age plays a factor. Those age 50 and older by the end of the calendar year can contribute an additional amount in catch-up contributions as long as their employer's plan permits such contributions. These limits, by the way, do not include any contributions your employer might provide. To learn more, refer to the Annual Limits Guide (PDF).

Take advantage of company matching

If you are fortunate enough to have an employer that offers to match your 401(k) contributions, consider contributing at least as much as the percentage your employer will match. Say your employer will match up to 6% of your salary. You should aim to contribute at least that much, if you can, to take full advantage of the employer match benefit. "Matching contributions are essentially free money, and you may want to take advantage of them while you can," says Ben Storey, director, Retirement Research & Insight, Bank of America.

Consider Roth 401(k) contributions

Making your contributions as Roth contributions that are held in a Roth 401(k) account may be a good option if your employer offers it. Qualified distributionsFootnote 1 from a Roth 401(k) account are federal income tax-free, which can help to reduce your tax burden in retirement.
Matching contributions are essentially free money, and you may want to take advantage of them while you can.
— Ben Storey, director, Retirement Research & Insight, Bank of America

Create an emergency fund so you won't have to tap into your 401(k) account early

Before maxing out your contributions, make sure you have money set aside in an emergency fund — three- to six- months' worth of living expenses is generally considered enough — as well as whatever you need to cover short-term goals like paying off debt and loans. You don't want to be caught in a situation where you're forced to withdraw funds from your 401(k) account before age 59½.Footnote 2 In that case, your withdrawal generally will be taxed as ordinary income and may be subject to a 10% additional federal tax, unless an exception applies.Footnote 3 A tax advisor can help you determine whether the additional tax applies to your situation.

Footnote 1 Any earnings on Roth 401(k) contributions can generally be withdrawn tax-free if you meet the two requirements for a "qualified distribution": 1) At least five years must have elapsed from the first day of the year of your initial contribution or conversion, if earlier, and 2) you must have reached age 59½ or become disabled or deceased. If you take a non-qualified withdrawal of your Roth 401(k) contributions, any Roth 401(k) investment returns are subject to regular income taxes plus a possible 10% additional federal tax if withdrawn before age 59½ unless an exception applies. State income tax laws vary; consult a tax professional to determine how your state treats Roth 401(k) distributions.

Footnote 2 A withdrawal may or may not be available from your 401(k) plan account when you need the funds because withdrawals are dependent on the plan's terms. For example, your employer's 401(k) plan may provide for in-service distributions such as hardship distributions or the plan may not permit these types of distributions and you would have to wait until termination of employment to access any funds in your 401(k) plan account.

Footnote 3 The 10% additional federal tax generally applies to withdrawals before age 59½, but certain exceptions apply, such as, but not limited to, death, disability and birth of or adoption of a child. If you leave your employer in the year you reach age 55 or later, distributions from your employer-sponsored qualified retirement plan will be exempt from the 10% additional federal tax. A tax advisor can help you determine whether the additional tax applies to your situation.

Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
You have choices about what to do with your employer-sponsored retirement plan accounts. Depending on your financial circumstances, needs and goals, you may choose to roll over to an IRA or convert to a Roth IRA, roll over an employer-sponsored plan from your old job to your new employer, take a distribution, or leave the account where it is. Each choice may offer different investment options and services, fees and expenses, withdrawal options, required minimum distributions, tax treatment (particularly with reference to employer stock), and different types of protection from creditors and legal judgments. These are complex choices and should be considered with care. For more information visit our rollover page or call Merrill at 888.637.3343.