Knowing the maximum 401(k) contribution for 2021 can save you from paying taxes twice. Go beyond limits set by the IRS, and you pay income tax on the excess contributions now and again when you withdraw money from the retirement account. Learn how the contribution limits work and how much you can save in a 401(k) plan in 2021.
Your 401(k) plan contributions are pretax amounts deducted from your paycheck, effectively reducing current income taxes while growing retirement savings. Contributions to your 401(k) are also called deferrals because you pay the income later (defer) when you retire. The Internal Revenue Service limits how much you can put into a 401(k) retirement plan each year starting January 1.
These retirement savings accounts are available through employers. You choose a percentage of your income from each paycheck to deposit in the 401(k) plan. Keep the annual total deferral within the 401(k) max contribution limits for 2021, and you won’t pay income taxes on that amount during the year. You pay taxes on plan distributions later, at your lower retirement income tax rate.
The IRS calculates how much you can contribute to a 401(k) using a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). The figures include the third quarter CPI-U. Three types of contribution limits apply, whether you are active in one 401(k) plan or multiple plans.
If you have two jobs or change jobs in 2021 and contribute to both employers’ plans, be sure your total contributions stay within the annual limits.
Employee contribution limit: This is the maximum you can contribute to your 401(k) in 2021. If you have more than one 401(k), your total elected deferrals to all plans must not exceed this limit. One caveat is that your employer’s plan can impose a lower limit. Be sure to read your plan documents or ask your company’s plan representative to confirm the maximum contribution.
Total contribution limit: Some employers match a percentage of the amount you deposit in a 401(k). An employer may also make nonelective contributions to a 401(k) even if you do not contribute to the plan. The total contribution is equal to the sum of:
Forfeitures are employer contributions that accumulate if you leave a 401(k) plan before working long enough to be fully vested (i.e., own all employer contributions).
Total contributions can’t exceed your annual income, even if the limit is set above the amount you earn. You can exclude catch-up contributions from the total contribution limit after you turn 50.
Catch-up limit: If you are age 50 or older by the end of the calendar year, you may contribute more to your 401(k) each year. You can boost your 401(k) by thousands of dollars when you add the catch-up limit to employee and employer total contribution limits.
Now that you understand what 401(k) contribution limits are, let’s take a look at the numbers. The IRS announced 2021 contribution limits in November 2020.
You can earn $290,000 in 2021 and take part in employer and employee contributions. Most 401(k) plans allow you to continue making contributions after you earn that amount. However, the IRS stops your employer matches or other contributions.
Your 401(k) plan may also stop your elected deferrals once compensation reaches the annual limit, although this is not the norm.
|2021 401(k) Limits|
|Employee Contribution||Maximum total annual contributions.||$19,500|
|Total Contribution||Employee and employer contributions combined.||$58,000|
|Catch-up Deferrals||Additional amount for those over age 50.||$6,500|
|Income||Rules depend on the 401(k) plan.||$290,000|
A change in income or contributing to more than one plan can create an excess deferral. Going over the max 401(k) contribution limits happens when contributions total more than the amount allowed for 2021.
If you leave the excess funds in the plan, the amount is excluded from your cost basis when you take 401(k) distributions after retirement. You get taxed on the excess deferral left in the 401(k) when you contribute and again when you take a distribution. Speak to a financial advisor if you don’t fully understand how to avoid creating an excess deferral.
No one can live comfortably on Social Security benefits. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, take advantage of the tax benefits combined with future retirement income. Start with a small contribution if you’re on a tight budget. Know the annual limits on elected deferrals, and plan early to maximize your 401(k) savings in 2021.