Most workers in America have access to a 401(k) retirement account through their employer, which allows them to stash away money for their golden years, with some tax benefits. But let's be honest, your eyes may have started glazing over when all the details of the account were being explained at the employee benefits meeting.
However, it's more important than ever to understand these plans, because just 18% of private-sector workers have access to a pension, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This leaves the vast majority of American workers to come up with their own retirement plan, and for many, that means a 401(k).
If you're already signed up for one of these accounts, or have access to one, here are four key benefits you should know about.
1. Contributions are generally tax deductible
Saving money for retirement is wise, but saving money and doing it in a way that helps you keep more of your own money is even wiser. One of the great features of a 401(k) is that you can make pre-tax contributions to your account. This means the money you put into your 401(k) will be deducted from your yearly taxable income amount.
For example, if you have an annual income of $60,000, and you contribute $5,000 to your 401(k) over the course of a tax year, then your taxable income for that year would drop to $55,000.
This benefit isn't without some limitations, though. The amount you're allowed to contribute to your 401(k) that won't be taxed is currently capped at $18,500 (though you can add an additional $6,000 per year if you're 50 or older), and you do have to pay Uncle Sam once you start making withdrawals from your 401(k).
Also, some employers offer Roth 401(k)s, in which contributions aren't tax deductible. The benefit there is that withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. However, some plans don't offer the Roth option, leaving you only with the regular tax-deductible choice.
For some people, paying taxes on the contributions, like with a Roth IRA, and receiving tax-free withdrawals may be better. But the 401(k)'s tax-advantaged account is still a good choice for saving money wisely.
2. These accounts offer some creditor protection
There aren't many places where your money is entirely safe if you happen to file for bankruptcy, but a 401(k) is one of them. In general, most creditors won't be able to get access to this type of retirement account because it's part of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which protects individuals' retirement savings from being taken during bankruptcies.
However, your 401(k) isn't entirely protected from the IRS. You'll have some protections against federal tax liens, but the IRS can levy funds once you begin taking withdrawals from your account.
3. They're easy to sign up for at your employer
Setting up new financial accounts, signing paperwork, and deciding how much money to take out your paycheck each month isn't exactly the most exciting thing to do with your time. But the great thing about a 401(k) is that since employers offer them, they're typically easy to set up.
Most of the time, employers give you the necessary paperwork when you start a new job, but you can also ask your human resources representative for information on how to set up your account. It'll be much easier than setting up a retirement plan on your own, and you'll have free and easy access to people who can help you with your 401(k) questions.
What you shouldn't do is put off signing up for a 401(k), like many Americans often do. About 79% of workers have access to a 401(k) or similar plan through their employer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but only 41% sign up.
Not only would you be missing out on an easy way to automate your retirement savings -- since it's deducted from your paycheck -- you could potentially be missing out on thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in free retirement money that could come from your employer's 401(k) matching program (see below).
4. Many companies have matching contributions
By far, one of the most significant benefits to putting money into your 401(k) is the fact that many employers offer contribution-matching programs. While the matching amount may vary by employer (and no employer is obligated to match contributions), many will pay $0.50 for every $1 you put in, up to the first 6% of your salary.
Here's how it works: Let's say your salary is $50,000 and you contribute $3,000 -- 6% of your salary -- each year to 401(k). If your employer offers the previously mentioned matching program, it would add an additional $1,500 in contributions to your account.
If your employer has a matching program and you're not currently signed up, you need to do so now. You're literally leaving money on the table if you're not participating. Keep in mind that many employers require you to work a certain amount of years at the company before their contributions to your account are vested.
A good way to save for retirement
There are plenty of other types of tax-advantaged accounts to put your retirement savings into, but the 401(k) is still a good way for many people to save. If you have access to one, be sure to start contributing to it as soon as you can, and check to see if your employer has a matching program. Your future self will thank you.