WHEN my daughter recently moved out of her San Francisco apartment to go to New York for graduate school, she went on Craig's List and sold everything she and her roommates had used to create that home in the city. They got what seemed like thousands of dollars for stuff I would have taken to Goodwill. Even their little coffee maker and some kitchen utensils went on the block and out the door. Buyers even came and did the heavy lifting.
Today, with stock market values plummeting, younger retirement plan savers might ask themselves what, of their stuff, might be candidates for sale so they can add more money to their 401(k) plans. There are two reasons why an intelligent person might consider this.
First, the market may not have reached bottom yet, but it's 30 percent lower than it was a year ago. Price-earnings ratios are now down to around 12-to-one (meaning that for every dollar of corporate earnings, the stock generating those earnings is selling for about $12). This is far below the norm of 16-to-one, so the current hysteria may have created the opportunity of a decade. No long-term investor could possibly make a mistake by investing in stocks today. Need a role model? Warren Buffett has invested almost $8 billion in GE and Goldman Sachs within the past few weeks.
Second, while 401(k) plans receive tremendous tax benefits because they are retirement plans, they are extremely flexible and can offer solutions to other financial problems way short of retirement. One important example could be the use of 401(k) or IRA money as a source of emergency income for anyone who has lost his or her job. Suze Orman and conventional wisdom both hold that people should never touch their 401(k) or IRA money prior to retirement. For anyone still working, that is definitely true. Money leaving a retirement plan is taxed as additional income, over and above job income, so it is a hit with the highest marginal income percentage, at least 35 percent for most people, plus a 10 percent penalty, so roughly half disappears.
For anyone between jobs for a sustained period, however, the case is entirely different. Money spent from a retirement nest egg might be the only taxable income they have in a calendar year. While those circumstances are certainly a bummer, the tax on a modest amount of bill-paying income from a retirement plan would be minimal if not zero, and there is no deduction for Social Security or Medicare. The only tax would be the 10-percent penalty.
Younger people are often not as well established in the working world as those with more experience. It can sometimes take awhile to find the perfect job. Having money that can be accessed in a 401(k) offers a bill-paying safety valve. It can buy time and generate a higher probability of landing in what could be a more productive future.
A healthy stash of 401(k) money is important for everyone regardless of age. After all, we may be headed into a recession, which is when your roommate is out of a job, or a depression, which is when you are out of work. In either case, any steps taken to increase today's retirement plan account balance are worth considering.
Technically, the only money going into a 401(k) must be contributed as a voluntary payroll-withholding reduction in salary.
Anyone who sells, for example, some of their unused sporting gear, a motorcycle, furniture or some other object of previous desire, can effectively deposit that money into their 401(k). How? By using those sale proceeds to pay bills so that they can afford to have higher 401(k) contributions deducted from their regular pay. It has the same net effect of depositing the proceeds into the plan.
For those with nothing to sell, you're in good company if you at least review those spending habits and find ways to squeeze more into what we will call your 401(k) "salary replacement" plan.