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What to Do with Your Old 401(k) Account: Making Informed Decisions for Retirement Savings

What to Do with Your Old 401(k) Account

Saving for retirement is important, and many Americans do so through employer-sponsored 401(k) plans. When you leave a job, you may be left with an old 401(k) account that you need to decide what to do with.

In this article, we will explore the different options available to you so that you can make an informed decision. Option 1: Leaving Money in the Old 401(k)

One option is to leave your money in the old 401(k) account.

This can be an attractive choice if the investments in your old 401(k) have performed well and have low fees. You do not need to worry about managing your investments, and it can be a good idea if you enjoy the funds lineup of investment choices.

However, there are some downsides to leaving your money in your old 401(k) plan. For example, if your account balance is below a certain dollar amount (often around $5,000), your former employer may force you out of the plan without your consent.

In this case, your money may be automatically rolled over into an IRA by your former employer, but fees and costs for an IRA account may be higher than those of a 401(k). Additionally, as you are no longer employed by the company, you may be missing out on plan changes or investment options that can impact your returns, and you wont be allowed to contribute to the old 401(k) plan.

This can make it more difficult to diversify your portfolio and monitor changes in the market. Option 2: Moving Money to a New 401(k)

If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, you can consider rolling over your old 401(k) account there.

One advantage of this option is that it simplifies your retirement investments by consolidating your old and new 401(k) accounts into one account, and often allows you to take advantage of tax-deferred growth, which can save you money in taxes over the long term. Another advantage is the option of enrolling in a

Roth 401(k), which would allow you to pay taxes on your contributions now, and then withdraw the money tax-free in retirement.

This may be a good option if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket later in life and want to avoid future taxes. Furthermore, a new 401(k) may offer a different list of investments and allow for easier monitoring of your overall retirement savings.

However, before rolling over your old 401(k), it is essential to compare the fees and performance of your new plan and ensure that it is a good fit for your investment goals. Option 3: Rolling Over Your 401(k) to an IRA

Rolling over your old 401(k) account to an individual retirement account (IRA) offers more investment options and potentially lower fees than a 401(k).

An IRA allows you to invest in virtually any security you choose, including stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and mutual funds. Additionally, if you open an IRA through an online broker, you may enjoy lower fees and costs compared to an IRA managed by a financial advisor.

Also, some individuals with high net unrealized appreciation (NUA) in their 401(k) accounts decide to roll-over all but the stock to an IRA. By doing so, they can take out the stock in-kind and pay taxes only on the cost basis.

They hold the stock to get long-term capital gains instead of paying ordinary income taxes, which would be the case if they were to sell the stock and take a lump-sum distribution. Option 4: Taking Distributions from Your 401(k)

Another option is to withdraw your money from your old 401(k) account, either as a lump-sum distribution or in periodic payments.

However, taking money out of your 401(k) is a taxable event and may lead to you paying a penalty if youre below the age of 59 1/2. If you have a

Roth 401(k) account and have reached the qualified distribution age of 59 1/2 or older, you can withdraw money tax-free as long as youve met the five-year holding requirement.

Before taking distributions, it is crucial to understand the tax implications of your decision and consider your overall financial position. Option 5: Cashing out Your 401(k)

Cashing out your 401(k) account is generally not recommended, as it can have a significant impact on your retirement savings.

While the cash may be useful in uncertain financial times, doing so now risks the potential for sacrificing tremendous growth and the power of compounding. Taking a lump-sum distribution of your 401(k) carries a 10% early-withdrawal penalty.

Moreover, the amount you take out is added to your regular income for the year, and youll end up paying taxes at your ordinary income tax rate. Consequently, your distribution will cost you a considerable sum and sets back your retirement savings goals.



In conclusion, knowing what to do with your old 401(k) account can help you make informed decisions about your retirement savings. Understand the different options, review your options, and weigh the pros and cons of each.

Choices range from leaving money in the old 401(k), to moving the money to a new 401(k) provided by a new employer, to rolling over the funds to an IRA, to taking distributions – it is all up to your financial needs and goals. By taking the time to think through your options and considering the impact on your tax and financial plans, you can set yourself up for comfortable and secure retirement.

Option 3: Moving Money to a New 401(k)

Rolling over your old 401(k) account to a new 401(k) can be an excellent choice if your new employer offers a better plan with more investment choices, lower costs, and tax-deferred growth. Before making any decisions, compare the fees and performance of your old and new plans.

Additionally, ensure that the plan fits your investment goals and aligns with your overall retirement savings strategy.

Different Investment Options and Tax-deferred Growth

One advantage of a new 401(k) account is that it often has a more extensive selection of investment options. This diversity gives investors the ability to adjust the risk of their portfolio to generate better returns.

Furthermore, moving your money to a new 401(k) plan allows you to continue receiving the benefits of tax-deferred growth. When you contribute pre-tax money to a 401(k) account, the contribution reduces your taxable income for that year.

The money you save in taxes then grows tax-free until you withdraw it in retirement. Therefore, contributing to a 401(k) plan can reduce your taxable income each year, the tax man charges you less, and your nest egg grows faster.

Roth 401(k)

Another option that many employers are now offering is the

Roth 401(k). A

Roth 401(k) works differently than a traditional 401(k) because contributions are made with after-tax dollars.

The money grows tax-free, and distributions are tax-free in retirement. With a traditional 401(k), taxes are paid when you withdraw the money in retirement.

Switching to a

Roth 401(k) could make sense if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you currently are. This is because you are paying taxes upfront on your contributions when your tax bracket is likely lower than in retirement.

However, note that you need to pay taxes upfront to convert your traditional 401(k) to a

Roth 401(k).

Consolidation of Old 401(k) Accounts

If you have multiple 401(k) accounts from previous employers, rolling them into one account can simplify your retirement savings and make it easier to manage. Having all of your savings in one place gives you a better understanding of your overall investment position, the macro trends involved, and how your portfolio is performing.

Option 4: Rolling Over Your 401(k) to an IRA

An alternative to moving your old 401(K) to a new 401(k) plan is to roll it over to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). An IRA can have benefits over a 401(k), such as more investment options and potentially lower fees.

Also, opening an IRA with an online broker allows you to take full control of your investments and save on fees compared to traditional managed accounts.

Tax Advantages and Investment Options

One of the main benefits of an IRA is tax-deferred growth. Tax-deferred growth means you do not pay taxes on your investment returns until you withdraw the money in retirement.

Thus, not paying taxes as your money grows can help you reach your retirement savings goals faster. Other advantages of an IRA are a wide variety of investment options, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs, among others.

With an IRA, investors are allowed to choose investments that align with their investment strategy, unlike 401(k) plans that have pre-set investment options. More so, if you have a self-directed IRA, you can invest in alternative assets like private equity, precious metals, or real estate.

Opening an IRA with an Online Broker

One advantage to opening an IRA with an online broker is that you can take full control of your investments. You get to choose your investments in a way that makes sense to you and suits your investment strategy.

Also, the fees for opening an IRA through an online broker can be lower than a traditional managed account.

Managed IRA with Betterment

Managing your IRA can be an overwhelming task for the average investor. However, a managed IRA is an option for investors who prefer someone else to take care of their investments.

Betterment is one example of a managed IRA provider that offers an automated investment service that manages a portfolio of low-cost ETFs, according to an investors investment goals, risk-tolerance, and age. Betterment also offers a low-cost managed service with a portfolio designed to meet your investment objectives, taking cybersecurity and online security seriously and allowing easy access to your account via their software.

Net Unrealized Appreciation

Net unrealized appreciation (NUA) is a unique tax strategy that applies only to employer stock held in a qualified retirement plan (QRP), like a 401(k) plan. NUA is the difference between the value of the stock when it is purchased and the current market value of the stock.

This is an effective tax strategy for individuals who own employer stock in a 401(k) plan. If you hold employer stock in a 401(k) plan, you can roll over all but the stock to an IRA.

You can institute what is known as an in-kind distribution of the stock as long as you meet the NUA requirements. By doing so, you only pay taxes on the cost basis of the stock at your ordinary income tax rate.

By doing this, you hold the stock outside your retirement account and get to take long-term capital gain rates for any gains made on it.


Knowing what to do with your old 401(k) account can have a significant impact on your retirement savings. Whether you decide to move your money to a new 401(k) or a rollover IRA, understanding the different options available can help you make an informed decision based on your investment goals, overall financial position, and tax strategy.

The main benefit of making any of these moves is gaining control of your retirement savings and positioning yourself for a comfortable and secure retirement. Option 4: Taking Distributions from a 401(k)

If you have reached age 59 1/2, you are eligible to take distributions from your 401(k) account without incurring the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

However, you still have to pay taxes on your contributions and earnings at retirement. Regular tax rates depend on your income bracket and filing status.

It is important to understand the tax implications of any distribution you take to avoid any unexpected tax bills in the future.

Age Requirement and Taxes

While a 401(k) is meant to assist in retirement saving, it is important to have some understanding of the withdrawal process. After age 59 1/2, owners of 401(k) accounts are no longer subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Distributions received as retirement income after age 59 1/2 are taxed as ordinary income based on your existing tax bracket. During distribution, you can choose to have taxes on the distribution withheld or paid as a lump sum when you file your tax return.

Note that after age 72, 401(k) owners are required to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) annually. The RMD amount is calculated based on your age, account balance, and life expectancies.

Roth 401(k) Qualified Distributions

One benefit of a

Roth 401(k) is that its qualified distributions are tax-free because you pay upfront taxes on your contributions to the account. To qualify for tax-free distributions, the account holder must hold the account for five years or until age 59 1/2, whichever comes later.

Distribution rules are essential for

Roth 401(k) owners to consider, as they impact the amount of taxable income they have when distributions start. Option 5: Cashing Out Your 401(k)

Cashing out of your 401(k) account can be tempting, especially during tight financial times.

However, doing so can have detrimental effects on your retirement savings goals. It is essential to make a prudent decision by analyzing the tax implications and long-term impact of taking a cash-out.

Sacrificing Retirement and Missed Growth

Choosing to cash out your 401(k) plan means sacrificing your retirement savings. This includes not only the amount you withdraw but also the potential growth that money could earn if left invested.

A 401(k) account is the best tool to save for one’s retirement and relying on other options, such as Social Security or other retirement savings, might not be sufficient to sustain your household needs after retirement. The power of compounding is a fundamental principle of investing that allows investors to earn returns on their original investment plus any accumulated interest.

Cashing out your 401(k) account will strip you of this potential growth for the future. The longer your savings remain invested, the more significant the opportunities for compounded returns, and the greater the impact of missing that time in the market.

Early Withdrawal Penalty and Income Tax

The cost of withdrawing money from a 401(k) account before age 59 1/2 is high. Besides missing out on the potential compound growth, the amount withdrawn is also subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Additionally, the distribution amount is considered ordinary income and taxed at the owner’s regular income tax rate. The income tax rate is dependent on the amount withdrawn and the owner’s tax bracket.

The higher the amount withdrawn, the higher the holder’s marginal tax rate. This tax rate can eat into a large portion of the amount withdrawn.

Moreover, taxes that apply without the early withdrawal penalty can significantly impact an account holder’s financial situation if they havent properly budgeted for these taxes. It is essential to carefully weigh the option of cashing out a 401(k) account as it may alert their long-term goals of retiring with financial security.


In conclusion, deciding what to do with your old 401(k) account can have a significant impact on your retirement savings. Understanding the pros and cons of each option, such as moving your money to a new 401(k) plan, rolling it over to an IRA, taking distributions or cashing out, is crucial to making an informed decision.

While rolling over your old 401(k) into a new account or rolling it over to an IRA offers several benefits

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