The 401(k) is a retirement plan implemented and provided to employees by their employer as a means to save for their retirement. Not only do many employers contribute to the employees 401(k) along with employee contributions (this is known as matching), but the contributions are pre-tax contributions; in other words the deduction is taken prior to calculating the state and federal taxes due on the wages. This helps not only the employee, but also the employer.
There are several variations of the 401(k) and depending upon your employer's status as a small business, and their ability to fund a 401(k), you may operate under a SIMPLE 401(k), a traditional 401(k), or The Safe Harbor 401(k). All the plans vary as to their contribution limits, the employers required matching contributions, and the level of administration and IRS reporting that must be factored into the plan upkeep. Let's take a look at each of the plans, and discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The compliance testing that must be done with the traditional 401(k) are quite complex, and require much involvement by the accounting or payroll department of the business. Today, many small businesses outsource their payroll function, and include the 401(k) plan administration as one of the outsourced functions also. The greatest advantage to the small business is that the business is not required to contribute to the plan, unless there is a significant imbalance in the contributions of the highly compensated employees versus the lesser paid employees.
The Safe Harbor 401(k) is a spin-off of the traditional plan, except for the fact that there aren't all the compliance requirements and testing that must be completed each year. The Safe Harbor plan is best suited for the small business that has a steady revenue stream, and that is able to make a required contribution each year to the employee fund. The employer must make a 3% contribution to all employees who qualify for retirement funding, regardless of whether the employee makes a contribution; also, the employer contribution level for non-highly compensated employees must not differ more than 2% from the highly compensated employee contribution rate. In this manner, the employer is required to provide the same benefits for all employees, without all the compliance testing of the traditional plan. The Safe Harbor 401(k) is simple to set up, and can be accomplished within 30 days of the new year, and is simple to administer. The disadvantage to this plan is the required contribution rates, and if the business does not have a steady cash or revenue flow, it is not a recommended plan.
After examining the different plan options available for small to medium companies, there should be at least one that fits within any small businesses scope of operations. Providing retirement funding for small business family members, as well as all other employees is one of the greatest benefits a company can offer current and prospective employees.
The IRA, individual retirement account, and an MSA, or medical savings account, works along the same premise, only the contributions are made in lump sum amounts, generally, at the end or just prior to the end of the tax year. For some, the IRA contribution made be made as late as April 15 of the upcoming tax year and deducted in the previous year. The individual contributions are made not through a company plan, but simply by the individual as an alternative means of acquiring savings to be used for retirement.
The taxes on the investment growth, and any dividends accumulated are deferred until the money is withdrawn, and it is then taxed as additional ordinary income when received. If for some reason you should need to withdraw the money prior to attainment of age 59½, you will be assessed a 10% penalty, with few exceptions; there are however a few of those "exceptions" that might apply to many individual tax payers. Withdrawals for the purchase of a first home, to pay for college expenses for yourself, your spouse or your dependents, disability, or payment of medical expenses that exceed more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income and for substantially equal payments based upon your life expectancy are not assessed a 10% penalty. These are sometimes referred to as "hardship withdrawals".