Add To Your 401(k) With No Pain

Published Wednesday, September 16, 2015 at: 7:00 AM EDT

We don't have to tell you how important it is to save as much as you can for retirement through a 401(k) or other plan offered by your company. But that's often easier said than done. When you're paying off a big mortgage on your home and putting your kids through college, you may be left without much you can direct into your retirement plan. But there may be a way to add to your 401(k) without feeling any pain.

It has to do with timing. If you earn more than the maximum Social Security wage base—$127,200 in 2017—you could allocate all or some of your year-end payroll tax savings to add to your 401(k) salary deferral. If you do that every year, you could boost your 401(k) account balance by tens of thousands of dollars or more. And you may not even notice those extra contributions.

With a 401(k) plan, you can defer part of your salary before taxes to an account established on your behalf, within generous limits adjusted for inflation. For 2017, the maximum you can put in is $18,000—or $24,000, if you're age 50 or older. Your company may sweeten the pot with matching contributions based on a stated percentage of your compensation.

Both employee and employer contributions to your account will grow and compound on a tax-deferred basis until you take money out, usually during retirement. If you start early enough and save diligently, you can accumulate a sizable nest egg during your working career.

Suppose that you contribute $12,000 a year and your employer provides a 3% match of your contributions. If you are 20 years away from retirement and earn an 8% return annually, you will accumulate $858,990 before calling it quits. But adding to your contributions at the end of each year can help you do even better. Note: This example is hypothetical. Actual results will vary and are not guaranteed.

During the year, Social Security tax is deducted from your paychecks. For 2017, you'll pay 6.2% on that first $127,200 of wages. Once you clear this Social Security wage base for the year, you can increase your 401(k) deferrals instead of pocketing the extra money. Because your take-home pay isn't reduced, you won't feel any pain.

How much will it help? Suppose, in the previous example, that you're able to increase your annual deferrals by $3,000 a year. With the same 8% annual return over 20 years, your nest egg will grow to $1,073,738—or $214,748 more than if you had spent your year-end payroll tax savings!

Even if your wages don't exceed the Social Security wage base this year, you can look for ways to earmark more of your salary for retirement savings—a top priority no matter what your financial circumstances.

This article was written by a professional financial journalist for Gebhardt Group, Inc. and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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