Retirement Savings: 401k Matched, Roth IRA Maxed, Now What?

Financial planners occasionally squabble over whether or not to invest Roth IRA vs 401(k).  Most agree that passing up matching funds in a 401(k) plan makes little sense, so it’s probably best to start there.

After taking advantage of those matching funds by investing through the company match, it most advisers recommend investors turn to the Roth IRA to take advantage of tax free growth opportunities.  After that, you are on your own, and left with a lot of questions.  Do I return to the 401(k) plan and max out my annual contribution there?  Do I invest in company stock?  Do I park anything left over in cash, or single stocks?  Let’s take it one step at a time.

Invest In 401(k) Through Matching Funds

Let’s assume your company offers to match the first 3% of your annual salary if you contribute to the plan.  If you earn $50,000 a year, and agree to participate at a 3% contribution, your annual contribution amount will be $1,500.  Your employer will kick in another $1,500, bringing your total contribution each year to $3,000.  That $1,500 contribution from your employer is almost like free money (nothing is completely free – you will owe taxes on it when you withdraw it down the line).

Max Out Roth IRA Contribution For You and Spouse

If you are living frugal, and haven’t buried yourself in house and car payments, you can probably afford to kick in another few thousand dollars each year to saving for retirement. Assuming you are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, it probably makes sense to turn your investment dollars above your employer’s 401(k) match here.

Contributions to a Roth IRA won’t help with your taxes in the year they are made, but earnings grow tax free over the life of the investment.  If your $5,000 contribution this year turns into $40,000 by retirement, you get to keep all $35,000 growth tax free, assuming you withdraw after reaching retirement age, or for a narrow list of specified qualified withdrawals.

Another beauty of Roth IRAs investments is that Roth IRA withdrawal rules allow for the withdrawal of contributions without penalty, at any time.  So theoretically, you could park money in a Roth IRA to grow for three or four years, and then only withdraw contributions, leaving the earnings untouched and continuing to grow.

Max Out 401(k) Contributions or Taxable Investing

At this point you’ve invested in a 401(k) through the company match, and maxed out contributions to a Roth IRA for you and your spouse (if married).  If you still have money to invest for retirement you have a choice:  return to your 401(k) plan and invest up to your annual maximum contribution, or invest in non-retirement, taxable accounts.

The path you ultimately take here depends on your goals for the future, and your overall financial picture. Personally, I would begin to invest in low-cost, low-turnover, taxable investment vehicles such as a broad index fund.  I have plans to “retire” early from full-time employment, and to do so will need access to savings prior to the IRS-defined retirement age (currently 59 1/2). If I planned to work well past the currently defined retirement age, I would probably plow more money back into the 401(k) plan to lower my taxable income and defer those taxes to retirement.

If you do decide to invest in taxable accounts go with a low-cost brokerage such as Vanguard (which I happen to think is one of the best places for a Roth IRA) or Fidelity.  These brokerages are widely recognized as two of brokerages with the lowest expense ratios in the industry.  Inside those brokerages, look for mutual funds with low turnover.

Remember, each time an investment inside a mutual fund is sold or exchanged, or “turns over,” it is a taxable event.  Those taxes will be distributed to mutual fund owners at the end of the year, and can create quite a tax hit, even if your overall mutual fund performance is down.

If I had to pick one fund to invest in it would the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund, which owns a little piece of every stock listed.  As you can imagine, there is not a lot of buying and selling happening here, which minimizes your tax hit.  It is also about as diversified as one could get within the domestic equities market (the Total International Stock Index fund is the international investment equivalent).

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