Saving for retirement is a constant struggle. In your own personal fight to retire rich, a 401(k) can be one of your most potent weapons. But knowing the 401(k) rules is essential if you want to take maximum advantage of the opportunity without running afoul of the IRS.
Fortunately, learning the rules and regulations that govern your account isn't too hard. Below, you'll find the most important 401(k) rules to keep in mind as you plan your retirement strategy.
Maxing out your 401(k)
The key advantage that 401(k)s give workers is the extremely large amount that you're allowed to contribute each year. For 2012, the rules allow you to put as much as $17,000 into your account, with those age 50 or over entitled to an even higher limit of $22,500. When you compare those figures to the much lower allowed contributions of $5,000 to $6,000 for IRAs, you can easily see how much more valuable 401(k)s can be to shelter income from tax. Moreover, unlike IRAs, there are no income limits that restrict whether you can deduct contributions to your account.
With the end of the year approaching, you're running out of time to max out your 401(k). But it's not too late. In most cases, changing the amount you put into your account is as easy as talking to your HR department.
Make your match
The other substantial benefit that 401(k)s offer many workers is the ability to earn matching contributions from employers. A large number of companies offer employer matching plans for the money you deposit, with a typical match adding as much as 3% to 4% of your salary if you contribute at least twice that amount from your own pocket.
One thing to remember is that the rules don't require employers to keep doing a 401(k) match even if they've done so in the past. During the financial crisis, Ford (NYSE:F), Paychex (NASDAQ:PAYX), and Regions Financial (NYSE:RF) were among dozens of companies that temporarily suspended matching. Later, all three went back to implementing matching programs, but the episode serves as an important reminder that you're not entitled to a match.
Be smart about loans
401(k)s are great vehicles for retirement saving, but they do lock up your money. One way that many workers have gotten much-needed access to their 401(k) money before retiring is to take out loans.
Unfortunately, the rules governing 401(k) loans have some traps for the unwary. Ordinarily, 401(k) loan provisions are extremely favorable, offering reasonable interest rates, repayment periods that typically run up to five years, and minimal administrative costs. A big problem comes in, though, if you leave your job while you have a loan outstanding -- whether your departure is voluntary or not.
Specifically, once you leave your job, you must repay your entire 401(k) loan within 60 days, regardless of the original timetable for making loan payments. If you don't, then the outstanding balance is treated as a premature distribution, and you'll owe taxes on that amount as well as potential penalties.
Given high unemployment rates in recent years, defaults on 401(k) loans have soared. According to one study, the rate of default has gone up from less than 10% before the recession to more than 17% recently.
Be careful with employer stock
401(k) plans often offer you the chance to buy shares of your employer's stock as an investment option. This may seem like a smart move, but be careful not to overdo it.
Over the years, many workers have gotten hurt badly by overinvesting in employer stock, only to see hard times not only cause their retirement account balance to fall sharply but also lead to their being laid off as well. More recent episodes at Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) have renewed concerns about the practice.
Some companies have addressed the issue by changing their 401(k) rules on employer stock. With numerous companies including Ford and Citigroup (NYSE:C) having faced litigation over big drops in share prices within 401(k) plans, limits on how much of your balance you can invest in employer stock make a lot of sense.
Your 401(k) is too good an opportunity to miss. Now that you know the rules governing it, you should feel more comfortable putting more of your hard-earned money toward a key aspect of your future: a financially secure retirement.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger makes the most of his 401(k). You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Citigroup. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and Paychex, as well as writing a covered straddle position on Paychex and creating a synthetic long position on Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy follows the rules.