If your employer has a 401(k) plan, it's usually a good option to use it to save for your retirement. That's especially true if your job includes a matching contribution from your employer.
But if you've already maxed out your employer match, or your employer doesn't offer one to begin with, there are several better options than investing more in your 401(k). 401(k) plans often have high fees and usually offer only a few investment choices. Here are five potential options that could be better for you.
1. Health savings account
If you have a qualifying high-deductible health insurance plan, you can contribute to a health savings account, or HSA. While an HSA is intended as a tax-advantaged account for medical expenses, you can pay for those expenses out of pocket and reimburse yourself later -- years later. That can turn the HSA into a stealth retirement account.
HSA contributions are tax deductible in the year they're made. What's more, if you defer your salary straight to your HSA, you won't pay FICA tax on the contributions either. If you invest the funds, they grow tax free. And when you withdraw funds for qualified medical expenses, you won't pay any taxes either. That's four tax benefits from a single account.
If you have an HSA, and you aren't maxing out the contributions, you should start prioritizing it. If you're currently paying for medical expenses directly from your HSA, look for ways to pay for them directly, and keep your HSA funds invested.
2. Traditional IRA
A traditional IRA confers all the same tax benefits as a traditional 401(k), but it has a couple of big advantages over your work retirement plan. First of all, an IRA will have much lower fees than a typical 401(k) plan at your work. In fact, it shouldn't cost you anything. Second, you'll gain access to a much wider variety of investment options with an IRA than in your typical work 401(k). Most 401(k) plans limit investment options to a few mutual funds or ETFs. An IRA will allow you to invest in all sorts of securities.
Beware, however, that the IRS puts income limits on who can take a tax deduction for IRA contributions. If you're over the limit, you may want to avoid contributing to a traditional IRA.
3. Roth IRA
A Roth IRA is a type of retirement account where the biggest tax benefits come in retirement. Instead of taking a tax deduction now like you would with a traditional IRA or 401(k), you pay taxes on your contributions in the year they're made. Distributions, however, come out tax free.
The advantages of a Roth IRA over a 401(k) are the same as a traditional IRA: Lower fees and more investment choices.
There are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA, but investors can get around them by using the backdoor Roth strategy.
A Roth IRA is great for someone who makes above the income limits for making tax-deductible contributions to an IRA, but still wants more choice in their investments than a 401(k). It's also a great option for someone who pays very little in taxes today, since they can lock in that low tax rate forever.
4. A small business retirement plan
If you have a small business or side hustle, you may consider opening a small business retirement plan to invest for retirement instead of sticking with your work's 401(k). There are a couple of popular choices: A SEP IRA and a solo 401(k).
The advantages of using your own retirement plan are the same as using an IRA: Lower fees, and more investment choices. Many brokers offer boilerplate SEP IRA and solo 401(k) plans and accounts for no fee.
The biggest difference between a SEP IRA and a solo 401(k) is how much you'll be able to contribute. With a SEP IRA, you can contribute up to one-quarter of your total compensation from self-employment. With a solo 401(k), you can contribute up to one-quarter of your total compensation from self-employment, plus an elective contribution up to $19,500. However, you're unable to contribute more than your total compensation, and no more than $58,000 for either plan.
Importantly, in order to qualify for a solo 401(k), you must not have any other full-time employees besides you and your spouse. A SEP IRA requires equal contributions as a percentage of compensation for all employees.
5. Real estate
While you can technically invest in real estate in your 401(k), it's highly unlikely your work plan allows it. What's more, the benefits of real estate investing are best realized by investing outside of a retirement account.
Investing in real estate allows you easy access to leverage by applying for a mortgage. You'll also get the advantage of some big tax write-offs such as mortgage interest and depreciation, which can offset much of your profits. That makes investing in real estate extremely tax-efficient, negating the benefits of investing in a tax-advantaged account. What's more, if you go to sell your property, you'll pay capital gains tax, which is likely preferred over paying income tax on retirement account distributions.
Investing in a good real estate deal when you're young can set you up to own a paid-off property with thousands of dollars in cash flow every year in retirement.
You won't have access to or interest in using all of the above options, but you may be missing out if you're just blindly throwing money into your employer's 401(k).