When it comes to socking money away for retirement, a 401(k) plan isn't your only option -- but it's a worthwhile savings tool to look at. In fact, the more you learn about 401(k)s, the more benefits you might discover. Here are a few surprising aspects of 401(k)s that could sway you to start participating in one today.
1. Your savings are protected from creditors
When you owe money, and a creditor obtains a judgment against you in a court of law, that creditor could gain the right to go after your assets -- but not your 401(k). These plans are set up under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and are protected from creditors, including bankruptcy proceedings, whereas this isn't always the case with IRAs.
That said, there is an exception. If you owe money in the form of unpaid taxes, the IRS can go after your 401(k) to be made whole. But if your creditor isn't the federal government, your 401(k) will offer a fair amount of protection.
2. Roth savings options are growing increasingly popular
The benefit of a Roth savings account is that you get to enjoy tax-free investment gains in your retirement plan and then take tax-free withdrawals during your senior years. For a long time, most 401(k) investors were limited to a traditional retirement plan only -- one that allowed for pre-tax contributions, but taxable withdrawals down the line.
These days, however, an estimated 70% of companies offer a Roth savings option in their 401(k), which means you may have an opportunity to enjoy the aforementioned benefits, all the while getting to capitalize on the generous annual contribution limits 401(k) plans are known for.
3. You may be able to take withdrawals penalty-free starting at age 55
Because there are so many tax breaks associated with saving in retirement plans like IRAs and 401(k)s, the IRS is pretty strict about when you can access your money. Generally, if you take a withdrawal prior to age 59 1/2, you'll be hit with a 10% penalty on the sum you remove. But 401(k)s offer an exception to this rule.
If you stop working for the employer sponsoring your 401(k) at age 55 or later, you'll have the option to start withdrawing funds from that plan immediately without incurring that 10% penalty. That gives you more flexibility to use your 401(k) earlier in life. Also, the age at which you can take early 401(k) withdrawals penalty-free is 50 if you're a public safety worker, like a police officer, which buys you even more leeway (assuming, of course, that you separate from your employer sponsoring your 401(k) at 50 or beyond).
To be clear, 401(k) plans aren't perfect. Some plans charge costly administrative fees that can eat away at your savings, while others offer limited investment choices that make it difficult to put your money to work the way you want to. But the above features make saving in a 401(k) a more appealing option, so if you're looking for a home for your long-term savings, you may want to consider taking part in your employer's plan. This especially holds true if your company offers a generous match that gives you free money for your senior years.