Fund Your 401(k) or IRA First?

  • Which vehicle should you fund first?

    In a perfect world, you'd max out your company 401(k) and your IRA.

    But if you're like a lot of people, "perfect" might not describe your money situation at the moment. So if you have to choose, which retirement account should get first dibs on your money?

    There's no one-size-fits-all answer. But asking a few more questions will help you arrive at the right decision for you. It pays to consider these 10.

  • Do you get an employer match?

    The first question you want to ask is, does your employer match funds, says Ed Slott, author of "The Retirement Savings Time Bomb ... and How to Defuse It."

    "It's free money, so you don't want to give that up," he says.

    The typical match today: 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent of your income, says Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

    So if you earn $50,000, and bank $3,000 in your retirement account this year, you get an additional $1,500 from your employer as a reward.

  • Do you plan to stay with your employer?

    Your 401(k) is like your briefcase: You can take it with you when you leave your job.

    But there could be limits on whether your employer's matching money goes, too.

    Some companies pay out their matches in a lump sum at the end of the year, says David Bendix, CPA/PFS, CFP, president of The Bendix Financial Group. If you're not there when they dole it out, you're out of luck.

    Others have what's called a "vesting schedule," he says. While the employer puts money in your account, it becomes yours in increments over time. You get to keep the entire matching contribution after you've been with your employer for a pre-determined length of time, typically five years, says Bendix.

    Bottom line: "In any short-term employment, you're probably not going to get much from the match," says Bendix.

    Some 401(k) plans also levy back-end and surrender fees if you remove your money from the plan.

    So how do you inquire about exit costs without sending up a red flag?

    Ask the plan administrator to provide a comprehensive list of fees and expenses, says Bendix.

  • Will you really save on your own?

    "If you don't put that money in your 401(k), do you have the resolve and willpower to save it somewhere else?" asks Ted Benna, president of Malvern Benefits Corp. and the consultant who discovered the loophole that launched the 401(k) industry.

    "Most people, myself included, don't have the discipline to do it on their own," he says.

    But with a payroll deduction, Benna says, "It happens, it's systematized, you don't have to think about it."

  • How much do you want to save?

    "In favor of a 401(k), you can put a lot more away," says Karen Altfest, CFP, principal adviser and executive vice president of client relations for Altfest Personal Wealth Management, a fee-only financial planning firm based in New York City.

    With a 401(k), you can save up to $16,500 in 2011. And you can go up to $22,000 if you're 50 or older. With an IRA this year, you can save up to $5,000, or $6,000 if you're 50 or older.

    "So if you've got that money to put away, you're going to be able to put away a lot more," in a 401(k), says Altfest.

    If you've already maxed out your 401(k) and still have income to save, "you might want to consider whether a traditional or Roth IRA might be right for you," she says.

  • Which option offers the investments you want?

    With an IRA, "there are a lot more investment options," says Bendix. "With a 401(k), you're limited to your employer's selections. And they may not be in tune with what your objectives are."

    But some experts give the 401(k) extra points for its flexibility.

    One option you'll often see in a 401(k) that is not offered in IRAs: stable-value funds. And since they traditionally offer a higher return than money market funds, they can be a great place to park cash for your upcoming retirement, says Wayne Bogosian, president of The PFE Group and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to 401(k) Plans."

    The average annual return: 3.26 percent, according to recent numbers from the Stable Value Investment Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C.

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