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Contribution Limits

by recipientme

401(k) plans are the primary retirement savings vehicle for the middle class. This is particularly true as more employers automatically enroll new employees in these plans. And for those who have the ability to maximize their contribution each year, the new calendar year often offers an additional opportunity.

401(k) contribution limits are tied to inflation, so as inflation rises, so will the maximum contribution limit, most of the time.

For three years in a row from 2015 to 2017, the maximum contribution limits for these accounts, including 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans, stayed steady at $18,000. In 2019, the limit went up to $19,000. And this year, the limit has increased again to $19,500.

Of course, those who are 50 or older can take advantage of an additional catch-up contribution. This effectively increases the limit for those approaching the traditional retirement age. In 2020, these taxpayers can contribute an additional $6,500 (up from $6,000 in 2019) above the regular maximum of $19,500.

In other words, if you are 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $26,000 into these tax-advantaged accounts in 2020.

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In this article:

  • Total Contribution Limits and Examples
  • Finding Account Fees
  • Maximizing Your Contributions
  • Take Control of Your 401k

In This Article:


Total Contribution Limits and Examples

One thing to keep in mind is that the $19,500 limit only applies to salary deferrals — contributions that the employee chooses to make (or chooses to keep making if they’re automatically enrolled in the plan).

Employers are allowed to add additional money to these accounts as an incentive. Usually, this takes place in the form of matching contributions or profit-sharing plans.

The total contribution limit, including employer contributions, has also changed. It is now at $57,000, up from last year’s $56,000.

The benefits of a 401(k) plan are, by design, directed primarily at people who most need an incentive to save for retirement. This may help contain the tax benefits within the middle class. The government does this by applying a maximum level of compensation to which matching benefits apply.

In 2020, only the first $285,000 in an employee’s compensation over the course of the year could be applied to the company’s matching formula. So those who make more than this limit in a year will only be eligible for matching contributions on some of their salary.

To illustrate, say a company matches an employee’s contributions at a rate of 100% up to a limit of 5% of the salary. An employee with a $100,000 salary contributes $15,000 to her 401(k). She will receive, at most, a $5,000 matching contribution (5% of her full $100,000 salary).

An employee at the same company earns $400,000 in compensation. She defers $19,500, so the matching contribution will be $14,250 (5% of the $2805,000 maximum compensation).

The IRS has additional rules that require a company to balance benefits between employees earning $130,000 or more and all other employees.

Finding Account Fees

Beginning in 2013, new regulations required 401(k) plan administrators to explicitly state in quarterly statements how much investors are paying in fees. Previously, this information was not easy to discover. You could (and should) look at the various prospectuses in search of management expenses fees or expense ratios, expressed as a percentage of assets. But there were at least two obstacles:

  • The expense ratios forced you to do your own calculations to determine how much money you’re spending on fees.
  • Not all fees were included in expense ratios. Some funds, like annuity-based mutual funds, don’t have expense ratios but certainly have fees.

Now finding those fees is easier. The regulations that started in 2013 are still in place today.

Maximizing Your Contributions

To maximize your 401(k) contribution in 2020, spread the $19,500 across the number of paychecks you plan to receive throughout the year. Or if you can’t maximize your contribution, put in as much as you can afford across your paychecks. That’s a contribution of about $1,625 each month for those aged 49 or younger. The calculation for those over 50 who want to max the contribution is about $2,166 per month.

If your employer records your contributions as a percentage of your paycheck, remember to change them to account for raises and bonuses. If you are expecting your company to match your contributions at some level and you reach your 401(k) contribution limit before your last paycheck, you may miss out on free money.

The following table illustrates the change in 401(k) contribution limits over the past several years.

Year 401(k) Maximum Catch-Up Contribution Maximum Allocation
2020 $19,500 $6,500 $57,000
2019 $19,000 $6,000 $56,000
2018 $18,500 $6,000 $55,000
2017 $18,000 $6,000 $54,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2015 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2014 $17,500 $5,500 $52,000
2013 $17,500 $5,500 $51,000
2012 $17,000 $5,500 $50,000
2011 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2010 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2009 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2008 $15,500 $5,000 $46,000

Take Control of Your 401k

Track and Analyze your Investments for Free: The easiest way to track and analyze all your investments, regardless of where they are located, is with Personal Capital’s free financial dashboard. By far the best financial tool we’ve ever used, Personal Capital enables you to connect all of your 401(k), 403(b), IRAs, and other investment accounts in one place. Once connected, you can see the performance of all of your investments and evaluate your asset allocation.

You can also see the fees you are paying through Personal Capital’s Retirement Fee Analyzer. I was stunned to learn that the fees in just my 401(k) could cost me over $200,000, requiring me to put off retirement for three years! They also offer a free Retirement Planner. This robust tool will help you plan for retirement and show you if you are on track to retire on your terms.


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