I get a lot of questions about what to do with old 401(k) accounts from prior employers, so let me see if I can make this clear and easy (or at least easier) for everyone.

If you don’t have any old 401(k) accounts, read on if you’re curious or we’ll see you next week!

Still with me? Let’s go!

If you have 1 or more 401(k) accounts floating around from past jobs, what do you do? Essentially, you have 3 options:

Option 1: Do nothing and leave it where it is. 

Pros:

  • You don’t have to do anything right now.
  • You may have good investment options in this account and not have several other accounts, making things difficult to keep track of. If that’s the case, this may be the best, simplest option for you.

Cons:

  • For many people, having multiple accounts to keep track of complicates life and may add stress. You also run the risk of forgetting about these accounts altogether…which means you won’t factor it in to your financial planning and you’re probably not looking at it annually (or ever) to see if you should rebalance and/or change your investment options.
  • You’re stuck with whatever investment options are available to you from your 401(k) provider, and these may be expensive options.
  • You also may be paying “hidden” yet expensive 401(k) administrative fees.

Option 2: Roll it (them) into a Traditional IRA.

Pros:

  • You move this money into an account you feel you can more easily handle/manage/view.
  • You don’t have to pay any taxes now.
  • If you have multiple 401(k) accounts from prior employers, you can consolidate them all into one Traditional IRA.
  • There are not limitations on your investment options.
  • For example, you can open an account with Vanguard and use their extremely low cost mutual funds.
  • You could also use one of the new “robo-advisors” such as WealthFront. Many robo-advisors charge small fees, invest in low cost funds, AND do the rebalancing for you. Except to remember you have the account (and hopefully add money!), you don’t have to do much else.

Cons:

  • You will have to pay taxes on this money whenever you take it out (no sooner than age 59 1/2).
  • You are required to begin taking money out at age 70 1/2 (approximately).
  • There will be some paperwork/online set-up between your 401(k) administrator(s) and the new account to make this happen.

Options 3: Roll it (them) into a Roth IRA.

Pros: 

  • You move this money into an account you feel you can more easily handle/manage/view.
  • If you have multiple 401(k) accounts from prior employers, you can consolidate them all into one Roth IRA.
  • There are not limitations on your investment options.
  • For example, you can open an account with Vanguard and use their extremely low cost mutual funds.
  • You could also use one of the new “robo-advisors” such as WealthFront. Many robo-advisors charge small fees, invest in low cost funds, AND do the rebalancing for you. Except to remember you have the account (and hopefully add money!), you don’t have to do much else.
  • This money grows tax free!
Cons:
  • You have to pay taxes on this money now.
  • There will be some paperwork/online set-up between your 401(k) administrator(s) and the new account to make this happen.

So, what’s the big distinction between Options 1 and 2?

Taxes! Do you want to pay taxes now or later?

How do you decide? Well, it depends (as it so often does).

If you’re in a low tax bracket now and have the cash to pay the tax bill, a Roth IRA is probably your best option.

If you don’t have the cash to pay the taxes now or if doing so would increase your tax bill significantly, a Traditional IRA is probably your best bet.

The bigger your 401(k) balance, the higher your tax bill – if you choose a Roth IRA.

In summary, you have three options:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Roll into a Traditional IRA. (Don’t pay taxes today!)
  3. Roll into a Roth IRA. (Pay taxes today, but enjoy tax-free growth for decades to come!)

A Very Important Tip: When moving money from your 401(k) to an IRA, you want the money to go straight from one account to the other (your new IRA). If at all possible, do not take possession of this money yourself. There can be tax consequences, and it can get messy.

You (hopefully) have a resource you can call upon from the human resources department of your prior company, which can help answer your questions and let you know the necessary steps to move your old 401(k) money into a new account. (Check your most recent account statement or your online log-in for contact information.) Just be sure you open the new account in time, so the money has a place to go.

While it make take some upfront work, the benefits of streamlining, simplifying, and using low cost funds should have big payoffs in the future (both financially and mentally).

For more information on 401(k) accounts and IRAs, here are some of my past posts:

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH 401(K) PLANS?

TRADITIONAL 401(K) VS. ROTH 401(K) ACCOUNTS

TRADITIONAL IRAS VS. ROTH IRAS

Let me know if you have questions!

Lucy


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