In my decade-long career, I've worked for three different organizations and participated in three different types of retirement plans - a state pension fund, a SEP-IRA, and a 403(b). Even though I don't fit the job-hopping stereotype of some millennials, I barely met the time required to keep an employer contribution to my retirement account (in finance-speak, become "fully vested"). Many of you may be early in your careers and are still figuring out exactly what you want to spend the bulk of your life doing; but you can't afford to ignore your employer's retirement plan. If you want to help yourself become financially independent, follow these three tips for how to handle employer-sponsored retirement accounts.
1. Get all of the match.
If you work for an organization - for-profit, not-for-profit, trying to make a profit (aka startup) - and they offer a tax-sheltered retirement plan* with a matching contribution, contribute as much as you can to receive the full match, even if it will take time for you to become fully vested. The money you contribute from your salary is YOUR money and will go with you when you leave. Investing now in tax-sheltered accounts is one of the best things you can do to start on the path to financial independence as you have time for your money to grow and grow and grow.
2. Never leave money on the table.
Some organizations who provide a match only contribute to employee retirement accounts once a year. If you decide that it is time to pursue another opportunity in July and your soon-to-be-former employer only contributes in December, ask your benefits administrator what the policies are for receiving contributions after leaving. Some employers will fund your account after you leave, others may fund it when you leave, and some may not fund it at all.
3. Rollover funds. Do NOT withdraw them.
When you change jobs, always roll over your retirement plan to your new employer's plan or a personal IRA. NEVER take the money out directly. You will be tempted to spend it and you will also have to pay a 10% penalty in addition to any taxes you may owe. And ultimately, if you take out money every time you change jobs and don't put it back into a new retirement account you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to grow that money into a much larger amount. Bankrate.com has a great calculator for comparing how much money you will lose out on if you withdraw retirement funds instead of rolling them over.
Of course, if you want to become financially independent as soon as possible, you will also be sure to max out your personal Roth IRA account, which is $5,500 for 2014 and 2015. If you haven't opened up a Roth IRA yet, check out my post on Vanguard and lowering the cost of retirement funds.
*If any of these terms are unfamiliar to you, check out Investopedia.com to learn more.