Here’s why your 401(k) balance is lying to you

Just recently, the brokerage firm Fidelity shared some noteworthy news: there are now a record-breaking number of “401(k) millionaires” among the 401(k) plans it administers. This exclusive group is about 168,000 strong, up from 118,000 last year. 

And while there’s no doubt these 401(k) millionaires should be proud of their accomplishment (after all, the average 401(k) balance sits around $104,000), we’re here to burst their bubble: they’re not really millionaires.

Wait, what?

Even though their 401(k) balance might read “$1,000,000” when they log-in to their account, that number is misleading. In fact, it’s a downright lie. And it’s all because of that dreaded five-letter word: taxes.

Remember, when you save in a traditional 401(k), you’re making a deal with the government: the government is saying, “We’ll give you an up-front tax break on your contributions as long as you agree to pay your taxes on this money at a later date, once the account has grown.”

Translation? Once retirement hits and you start making withdrawals from your 401(k), Uncle Sam gets a chunk of your balance.

For example, let’s say one of those 401(k) millionaires is in the 12% tax bracket in retirement. Instead of the $1 million, he or she really has about $880,000. Someone in the 22% bracket would have about $780,000.

Obviously, both of those scenarios still leave a nice amount of money for retirement. But neither is as much as originally thought.

This is one of the reasons why a Roth 401(k) is such a powerful retirement planning tool – you contribute money you’ve already paid taxes on, so the account grows tax-free. Then, assuming you’ve held the account for five years and you’re at least age 59 ½, withdrawals on earnings are tax-free. If you see a balance of “$1,000,000” in your Roth 401(k) account, you truly have $1,000,000.

The Simply Money Point

Traditional 401(k) balances don’t account for taxes. So, as you’re planning for retirement, don’t take the number you see at face value. It’s not a true indication as to how much is actually yours.

Are you confident you’ll be able to retire well? If not, educate yourself on how best to manage your life and money. Visit our Retirement Resources library for free online video tutorials, downloadable guides, and live events.


Simply Money Advisors is neither a law firm, a certified public  accounting firm, nor a tax advisory firm and no portion of the blog content should be construed as legal, accounting, or tax advice. Please  consult your own attorney, accountant, and tax advisor for legal, accounting, and tax advice. A copy of the Simply Money Advisors’ current  written disclosure statement discussing our advisory services and fees is available for review upon request. Advisory services offered through  Simply Money Advisors, a SEC registered investment adviser. 

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