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Year End Reminder: Change Your 401(k) Contribution Level Now

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Last updated on July 28, 2019 Comments: 16

At the end of the year, most people in the United States are thinking about the holidays and the potential credit card bills for gifts and family visits. One good way to control this potentially stressful month is to take some time to breathe and get your own finances in order. There are several actions you should consider and complete before the year ends in order to start next year on the best foot possible.

A few weeks ago, the IRS announced that the 2017 individual contribution limit toward a 401(k) retirement account will remain unchanged from 2016. Anyone financially comfortable enough to maximize the contribution will be able to tuck away $18,000 this upcoming year (the same as they could this past year). Savers aged 50 or older qualify for an extra $6,000, in addition to the $18,000, for a total contribution limit of $24,000.

If you plan to maximize your contribution, and did so this past year, you don’t need to make any changes. However, if you didn’t reach the contribution limit this year but plan to do so in 2017, take some time now to plan.

Contact your benefits department via phone or website and change your deductions for the upcoming year. The changes could take a few weeks to go into effect. If you want the increased contributions to take effect at the beginning of the year, it’s best to start looking at the details now.

Calculate Based on Employer Match

In many cases, employers offer some sort of matching contribution. For example, the company might match half of your contributions, up to the first 6% of your salary that you contribute. Or, perhaps they’ll match all of your contributions up to the first 3% of your salary.

Let’s take the first case. In order to maximize your tax benefit and matching benefit, you’ll need to deduct 6% of your paycheck every period, if 6% of your annual salary adds up to $17,000 or less ($22,500 or less if you’re 50+ years old). In the second case, you’ll only need to deduct 3% of each paycheck. If the optimal percentage would result in exceeding the government-mandated maximum, you’d have to determine the best percentage that prevents you from exceeding that threshold.

Special Provisions

I found out recently that some employers offer a benefit, sometimes called something like “spillover protection.” Let’s say you contribute more than the IRS maximum. Companies that offer this feature will allow you to continue deferring income to your 401(k); it would just be considered after-tax contributions. Most other employers would just automatically stop your contribution once you hit the limit. So why is this a nice benefit to have? Well, for those whose deferments automatically stop, and whose employer matches contributions on a per-paycheck basis, they’ll miss out on some matching contributions. Essentially, they’re giving up free money. With this spillover protection, their employer will continue contributing their match (the free money) up to the limit, versus leaving it on the table.

Employers may also have other contribution limits. It’s common for a corporation to say that the maximum contribution percentage is 50% of an annual salary. Be sure to check into your benefits and plan out the year’s contributions accordingly.

Not Maxing Out Contributions This Year?

Recalculating the 401(k) contribution at the end of the year is not a tactic just for those earning enough to maximize the tax benefit. Let’s say you received a raise or cost of living increase this year and haven’t adjusted your 401(k) deferment to match the extra cash flow. The end of the year is a good time to bump your contribution by one or two percentage points. Some 401(k) plans have options where the investor can initiate automatic investment increases each year. This is a good opportunity to turn this feature on or manually adjust your contribution.

This advice also isn’t just for people working for large corporations. Non-profit organizations often offer similar benefits called 403(b) plans, and if you’re self-employed, you may save for your retirement using an individual (or Solo) 401(k) plan.

Don’t wait. The process of changing your contribution can take a few weeks to take effect, so if you want to contribute a consistent percentage of your income throughout the new year, the sooner you make the change, the easier that will be.

Article comments

Anonymous says:

Yay for the increase, but $17,000 a year still seems a little low. Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous says:

My company matches up to 5% and I put that much into my 401k. I did raise my contribution level a little just because this is an easy way to save and I would like to retire at some point. The retirement age is fast bearing down upon me.

Luke Landes says:

Great move, Cejay! Your future self will thank you.

Anonymous says:

If only Congress could raise the contribution to a bigger amount i.e $50,000 pre-tax contribution. One cannot live off even $17,000/year contribution for 30 years in retirement comfortably if they don’t have help from Social Security and a pension. Need to save more than that!

Luke Landes says:

The only reason I can deduce for having the limits is because without a limit, the tax benefit for people who earn very high salaries or who have major assets isn’t disproportionate. Say you earned $1,000,000 this year. Without limits of various types on 401(k) (as well as other tax safeguards in place), you could defer tax on $1,000,000 and live happily every after.

Anonymous says:

thanks for the tip about the 401K increase. I’ll have to update my 401K contribution level now.

Anonymous says:

I miss those days of employer matching 401K’s. Good advise though to make all the needed changes before the year begins.

Anonymous says:

Hopefully I’m able to find a job that will have a 401(K) matching program. I’m going to max it out for sure! I didn’t get a chance to at my last job, but I’m looking to contribute to an IRA in the mean time.

Anonymous says:

Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous says:

My company only allows whole percentages, so it can be tricky to get just the right percentage to max out both the match and the limit, right on the last paycheck of the year. Sometimes I have to change mid-year in order to do it.

Anonymous says:

I changed mine just before my last 2011 check. It takes a month to take effect.

Anonymous says:

My company increased its match from 3% to 4%. I was already putting away 5% so I don’t have to make a change to take advantage. I was considering increasing it anyway, but I can’t afford the full amount right now. Instead, I am trying to put as much as I can in the 401(k) and max the Roth while paying down my student loans as fast as I can and still having enough left over to enjoy life.

Anonymous says:

My employer will match 15% of my salary regardless whether I contribute or not…should I still contribute on my own? I’m 23.

Luke Landes says:

That’s a great benefit. If you have good investment choices in the 401(k), I say you should, but if the choices are expensive or actively managed, I would probably suggest investing in a traditional IRA for a similar tax benefit and choose the investments you like. If you max out your IRA and still have the funds to invest for retirement, then you can go back to your 401(k). More information could lead to a more specific recommendation, and it helps to check with a financial planner (I am not one).

Anonymous says:


Thanks for the response. My company pays all the managing and annual fees, and provides lots of choices so I’m fine just keeping everything with them.

I guess my question is more related to– how much is it too much to put into retirement?

I also have been fully finding Roth IRA for the past 2 years (which is nicely growing!), and will use my bonus to fund it for ’12.

Luke Landes says:

You might be interested in reading this: Is it possible to save too much money?

The point of money is not to have a high bank balance when you die, it’s to use to provide yourself with choices in life and some modicum of freedom. Unfortunately, we live in a world where planning for the future is a necessity, though. You’ll need to find the right balance for you, between helping ensure a comfortable self-reliant life in the future with enjoying your life today. Don’t forget that every day you live could well be your last.