Make the Most of Your 401k With Free Money.

Problem #54: Have you glimpsed the financial unicorn – free money? Does it Exist?

A unicorn is a mythical creature only glimpsed in fairy tales or dreams. It does not in fact exist, but what about free money? For which you neither have to work or stress over. Sound too good to be true?

A while ago, I wrote an article about free money. I questioned whether it did in fact exist. I was referring to credit card rewards. Which in fact is not actually free money. They just give some of your own money back to you. So you have to spend money to get a pittance returned – not free money.

Anyway, I was doing some reading and thinking more about free money, and I came to the conclusion that there is a source of free money that you should be utilizing. The unicorn is real!

Don’t know what this free money is? You have a PROBLEM.

What is this ultimate source of money with almost no strings attached you might ask?

Well . . . when my wife asks me, while she’s sitting on the couch, “What movie did you just put in, dear?” I most often answer with silence or I sometimes say, “Just watch.” (I try to sneak “The Last Samurai” or “Gladiator” in sometimes.)

She sometimes gets annoyed (especially with “The Last Samurai”), but she has learned after years of this it usually is better not to ask. She just goes with it, and usually ends up watching said movie or reading a book.

So I do sometimes like to hesitate before answering a question, but I’m not sure you would appreciate that. So I won’t keep you waiting. If you have a job that offers a 401k retirement savings plan, you probably have an employer match. This is free money. Are you taking advantage of it?

How does it Work?

rolled up billsYour 401k is essentially an employer sponsored savings plan to be used once you reach retirement age. You can contribute up to $18,000 per year if you are under 50. If you are over 50 you can add an additional $6000 per year for a maximum of $24000. These rules are set by the IRS, not by your employer.

Now, not every employer offers a 401k saving plan. Some employers offer different plans, so whatever options you have, be sure to check it out. Read through their information, and make sure you understand it before you contribute.

Where does the free money come in?

Your contributions are deducted from your paycheck before taxes are calculated making the money in this account tax-advantaged (unless you have a ROTH option – which is super cool). Meaning you don’t pay taxes on the money you contribute. (A ROTH is different, and probably a different post altogether.)

You save in taxes (at least initially – you’ll pay taxes later) because you saved money. That’s pretty cool – right. Not exactly free, because as I mentioned above, you will pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement.

But wait – there’s more. In most cases, not only do you contribute into this account, but your employer does too!

That’s right, when you contribute 8% of your paycheck for example, your employer may contribute 4%. These percentages vary by employer. Some may contribute up to 3%. Others may match your contribution dollar for dollar up to a set limit. In any case, any employer contribution is free money.

Any employer contribution is essentially free money!

Contribute the amount you need to max out your employer’s contribution. In my case, if I contribute 7%, my employer contributes 3.5% immediately. I get a 50% return right away. Where else can you get that kind of interest rate instantly and guaranteed?

What’s the catch?

In some cases, you must be vested in the plan to keep the employer contributions. In other words, if you leave the company or plan before you are vested, you will lose the employer contributions. You won’t lose your money, just theirs.

You also don’t have access directly to this money. It’s for retirement after-all. If you do want to use this money before retirement, there are some options though.

What are My Withdraw Options?


You can withdraw money at any time, but you will pay taxes (at a rate determined by your taxable income), and you will pay a 10% penalty.

So if you withdraw $10,000 to buy a car, you will only end up with close to $6500 in your pocket. Please don’t do this!!! Your sweet $10k ride just turned into a modest $6k daily driver. Again – Not a good plan!

Disability, Hardship, First-time Home-buyer, Education Expenses

You can withdraw money for any one of the scenarios listed above. You will still pay taxes, but not the penalty. Depending on your situation, this may or may not apply to you. This is not a good option either, because you are robbing your future self of growth on the money you withdraw. Especially when you can plan for most of the situations above and save up other money instead.

401k Loan

A third option is to borrow against your account balance. This is called a 401k loan. You will only be able to borrow a portion of your total. And then you will have to start paying it back with interest.

Those who argue that this is ok will say that you are paying yourself back and not a bank. Plus you are giving interest to yourself. What’s wrong with that?

Let’s think about it. If you don’t take a loan, your contributions (and your employer’s) are regularly invested and continue to grow. – Good.

But when you take a loan, your contributions are going towards replacing the money you took out – with interest. So unless you increase your contributions by the amount of the loan payment, you are losing a lot of money that can be growing. Most people who want to take a 401k loan are not in the position to increase their contributions by this much otherwise they would not have taken out the loan in the first place.

Also, the interest you pay yourself is intended to recoup some of the opportunity cost, but it doesn’t make up for the reduced contributions. Unless you increase them yourself as I mentioned before.

Another stipulation of a 401k loan that most don’t think about is: If you leave the company, your remaining 401k loan balance is due in full. Otherwise it’s considered a withdraw. And we’ve already established that this a bad idea.

401k loans are also not a good plan.

Roth conversion ladders and SEPP 72(t)

These are more complicated for the purposes of this discussion. I may write more about them in the future, but for now if you are interested, check out this article from the “madfientist”.


I tell you this so that you know your options, and that you do have access to this money if you need it. Just try not to need it. You will end up losing money if you decide you need this money before retirement.

Best practice: Contribute the maximum amount to receive the entire employer match. And then leave it alone! Don’t touch it until retirement, and just watch it grow.

It’s kinda like watching grass grow – boring at first. Except you don’t have to mow it.

Investing is like watching grass grow - boring. Until one day you look up and it's a jungle. Click To Tweet

But the employer match is free money, so take it!

Do you have a employer sponsored retirement plan that you are taking advantage of? 

Let me know in the comments, and please share using the social media buttons below.


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  1. So thankful that your employer matches such a high percentage. Looking forward to seeing how much is in there upon retirement. We can party together.
    Very informative. I want to know about all the different types of accounts because no matter how many times you explain it to me I forget. If you put it all in one place than I can come back and look. May be in another post….
    I love you,

  2. Oh yes, I have been taking full advantage of my employer’s match from my first eligible date. At the time, I just knew that “investing was a good idea” (honestly- I had no clue what I was doing!) but I knew I wanted a 401K and my manager’s boss mentioned I probably wanted to invest to the match to start. Thank goodness! Mr. AR also invested for the 10 years at his first employer, taking full advantage of their match. He will soon be eligible for a match with his new employer a little later this year (once he hits 1 year there).

    • Right, even if you don’t know what you’re doing entirely, start just to get the employer match. And then educate your self as you go.
      Thanks for the comment. 😀

  3. I’ve seen a ton of articles about withdrawing from your 401K and various options you have. I say don;t ever touch it, at least until you’re eligible to withdraw without a penalty. It’ just not worth it. Even taking money out at a young age because you’re buying your first home will cost you THOUSANDS over the long-run. Just not worth it to me.

  4. Great information. I work for a not-for-profit, I have a 403B. My company has a generous match. They match 100% of the first 5%. That is the best matching I ever had. You cannot beat the free money and the tax deferred growth.

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