5 Alternatives to a 401(k) Plan

By Tim Lemke on 18 December 2017 0 comments

The status of 401(k) plans has been in the news a lot recently, as part of the wider discussion about tax reform on Capitol Hill. While it does appear that tax benefits for the popular employer-sponsored retirement plans will remain unchanged for now, even the prospect of change has left some people feeling unsettled about what to do with their money moving forward.

To be clear, a 401(k) plan remains a very powerful tool to help you save for retirement, especially if your company is generous in matching contributions. But if you are feeling confused or are not happy with what your current 401(k) plan offers, there are some other options available to help you build a retirement fund. Here's the skinny on a handful of 401(k) alternatives.

1. Roth IRA

A Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is a popular option among people who don't have access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan through their employer. With a Roth, you can contribute up to $5,500 annually ($6,500 if over age 50), and since you contribute with post-tax dollars, the gains on those investments can be withdrawn tax-free when you retire. Roth IRAs are popular due to the flexibility to choose your own investments. It's also possible to use the account for certain emergency costs, such as medical bills or a home threatened by foreclosure, and you can even use it as a college savings account, though there may be penalties and taxes if you withdraw gains before age 59 ½. (See also: Using Your Roth IRA as an Emergency Fund — Ever a Good Idea?)

A Roth IRA is a good alternative to a 401(k) for those who don't have access to one. Even if you do have a 401(k), sometimes a Roth IRA is a better option, such as in cases when an employer does not offer matching contributions, or the fund choices are expensive or limited. (See also: 401(k) or IRA? You Need Both)

Roth IRAs are also useful because you can contribute as long as you have earned income; other retirement plans require you to begin making withdrawals by age 70 ½.

2. Traditional IRA

A traditional IRA is similar to a Roth IRA, but the tax advantages are more in line with a 401(k). In this case, any contributions to the account are deducted from your taxable income up front; you will be required to pay taxes on the gains when you retire.

It's entirely possible and sensible to have both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA in order to get tax advantages both now and later. Note that with a traditional IRA, you must start taking required minimum distributions starting at age 70 ½.

3. Taxable brokerage account

There are no tax advantages to opening a good old-fashioned, regular, taxable brokerage account. But you do get flexibility that can't be offered by a 401(k) or IRA. With a regular taxable account, you can invest in whatever you want and buy and sell whenever you want without any early withdrawal penalties, though you will pay taxes on any gains. This type of brokerage account is great if you want to buy dividend stocks to boost your income, or use the investments for something other than retirement.

4. Peer-to-peer lending

This is a relatively new investment option that allows people to connect online with borrowers and collect interest income. Through peer-to-peer lending sites such as Lending Club and Prosper, you become a lender and loan money to someone in need of cash, profiting from the interest on that loan.

With peer-to-peer lending, lenders can earn considerably more than what they might earn from interest from the bank, and may even outpace stock market returns, depending on the riskiness of the loans they buy. But there is always some risk that the borrower will default. And keep in mind that interest from peer-to-peer lending is taxed as normal income, rather than investment gains. (See also: Everything You Need to Know About Peer-to-Peer Investing With Lending Club)

5. Stick your money in the bank

Putting your money into a savings account is always an option, though not the best one on this list. These days, interest rates are so low that in many cases the growth of your savings will barely outpace inflation. You may be able to find better-than-average rates at some online banks or by opening a certificate of deposit, but there's no chance you'll be able to match the returns of the stock market over the long term. It's fine to use a bank account for your emergency fund, but for long-term savings, look elsewhere.

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