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401(k) glossary: Your guide to retirement terminology
401(k)

401(k) glossary: Your guide to retirement terminology

Nicolle Willson, J.D., CFP®, C(k)P®

Saving for retirement should be simple. But whether you’re an employer sponsoring a 401(k) plan or an employee just trying to save, it can feel like the price of entry is an economics degree.

Put some of the blame on retirement’s complex terminology. Just look at the language used by the experts: fiduciaries, vesting cliffs, summary plan descriptions, distributions — it’s enough to make you want to pour yourself a tall glass of liquidity and rollover.

Guideline believes that saving for retirement should be easy for everyone. Let’s help you clear a few things up. Consider this glossary your secret decoder ring to all-things-retirement.

401(k) Plan: A popular, employer-sponsored retirement plan offered as an employee benefit. Traditionally, money is taken directly from employees’ paychecks pre-tax, deposited in the plan’s trust, growing tax-deferred, and is not taxed until withdrawal.

Alternatively, the employee may elect to have the amount taken after-tax, deposited in the trust and invested and withdrawn on a tax-free basis. For more, read our guide to 401(k) plans and the definition of the “Roth 401(k) Plan” below.

Annual Rate of Return: Your annual rate of return is the percent change in your account due to investments gains or losses over the course of a year. Expressed as a percentage, this number can vary widely based on your investment choices and strategy—though the average annual return is 5% to 8%.

Assets Under Management (AUM) Fee: These are fees that investment advisers and mutual funds charge as a percentage of the money they’re managing on your behalf. These might look like a tiny percentage (1.68% is the national average), but their cumulative effect can cost retirement account holders thousands of dollars over the long run. For more on these, read our article on 401(k) plan fees.

Auto-IRA: Even if an employee doesn’t have access to a 401(k) plan, their employer may be able to enroll them into a state-run retirement account called an “auto-IRA.” This is actually a requirement in some states (e.g. Illinois Secure Choice). Scroll below to learn how individual retirement accounts (IRAs) work.

Automatic Enrollment: While some companies leave it up to employees to sign up for their retirement plan (opt-in), others automatically enroll them by default. Though employees have the option to back out any time, they tend not to. Companies with automatic enrollment (sometimes called “auto-enrollment”) average a very high 90% plan participation rate.

Automatic Rebalancing: You’ve heard the saying “buy low, sell high.” While you can micromanage your retirement savings, doing so isn’t practical. Automatic rebalancing is a retirement feature (supported by Guideline’s technology) that rebalances your account automatically. This involves adjusting your portfolio’s percentage of stocks, bonds, cash, and other investments back to your original stated target. You can learn more about rebalancing here.

Compound Interest: Think of compound interest as the “interest on the interest” that your investments earn. If you invest $100 and earn 10% interest in your first year, you’ll have $110 to invest in the second year, $121 in the third, and so on. If you continue earning 10% interest every year, you’ll double your money in seven years. Sometimes called “compounding,” this effect makes it possible for even a modest retirement account to grow significantly over a career.

CalSavers: A California retirement program that requires employers in California with five or more employees to offer a retirement plan. Learn more here.

Cliff Vesting: While some companies allow 401(k) plan participants to vest in their full employer contributions account gradually, others prefer a more abrupt formula. In cliff vesting, employees remain 0% vested in their employer contributions account until they complete a minimum number of years of service, when they become 100% vested. A typical cliff vesting schedule uses three years of service.

Deferrals: Also called employee contributions, deferrals are the portion of an employee’s paycheck that’s set aside for their retirement account. Deferrals might be expressed as either a set dollar amount or a percentage. In some cases, a company might automatically assign an employee a default deferral rate (see automatic enrollment). Even then, employees can update their deferrals at any time.

Defined Benefit Plan: Commonly referred to as a pension, this is an arrangement where retired employees are paid a guaranteed monthly income from their employers, who choose the plan’s investments.

Defined Contribution Plan: This is a retirement plan in which employer contributions are defined and allocated to the individual accounts of each employee. 401(k) plans are a type of defined contribution plan where participants can contribute a percentage or set amount from their paychecks every pay period. Employer contributions in a 401(k) plan are optional.

Distribution: When you withdraw money from your retirement account for any reason, that’s called a distribution. While this technically includes situations where you might be moving funds from one plan to another (see “rollover”), in most contexts, distributions are taken for the immediate benefit of the account holder. In most cases, you’ll owe federal and state income taxes on the amount. In addition, if you take a distribution before turning 59 ½ (yes, the law’s that specific), you’ll owe the Feds an additional 10% early distribution penalty. Some states may also impose an early distribution penalty (e.g. California’s is 2.5%).

Dollar-Cost Averaging: Dollar-cost averaging is a strategy that involves investing the same amount of money on a periodic schedule (e.g. monthly). While the number of shares bought may fluctuate from month to month, the amount invested does not. During periods of price declines, you’re automatically buying more shares than when prices are more expensive. If you set aside money for retirement every paycheck, you’re naturally benefiting from dollar-cost averaging.

Employee Contribution Limits: The IRS caps how much individuals can set aside in their retirement accounts per year. These contribution limits vary depending on the kind of account. As of 2020, the 401(k) contribution limit for individuals is $19,500. If you turn 50 (or older) during 2020, you’re eligible to contribute an additional $6,500. IRA account holders are limited to much smaller contribution limits. In either case, it’s important to note that employer contributions do not count towards this cap.

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plan: While individuals can open retirement accounts on their own (see our explanation of IRAs), employers can also offer their employees access to a plan, usually with the help of a third-party provider. A 401(k) plan is one of the most popular employer-sponsored retirement plans.

Employer Matching: If a 401(k) plan has an “employer match,” that means the employer will contribute to an employee’s retirement account based on how much that employee defers. Simply, the more the employee contributes, the more the employer does, up to a maximum cap determined by the employer. Employer contributions are 100% tax-deductible for employers, up to applicable deduction limits, making them a popular way for companies to reward their employees. For more details, read our article on employer matching.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA): Call it the closest thing to a 401(k) rulebook. While the federal government doesn’t require companies to offer retirement plans, it does set minimum standards on those that do. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) outlines the conduct, responsibilities, and obligations 401(k) providers have to their employees. It also requires most retirement plans to pass stringent nondiscrimination testing to ensure that top executives aren’t disproportionately benefiting compared to other employees.

Expense Ratio: Most 401(k) plans offer participants control over the investment of their accounts by selecting from among a menu of mutual funds. Each mutual fund in a participant’s portfolio comes with an administrative and operating charge, taken from the participant’s invested funds as a percentage of the assets invested in that fund. This charge is called the fund’s “expense ratio.” A fund’s expense ratio measures how much of a fund's assets are taken by the fund’s manager for these purposes, and it can vary widely from fund to fund. Some funds charge an expense ratio loaded with high fees for both employers and employees. For example, if your account has $30,000 and that entire amount is invested in a fund with a 1% expense ratio, your account is paying $300 in fees each year for that fund. If you want to evaluate a plan by how costly it is, consider comparing the expense ratio for each fund in the plan’s menu.

Fiduciary: Fiduciaries are individuals or entities entrusted with handling funds or other assets belonging to someone else, or exercising discretion in administrative activities. When it comes to retirement plans, there are a few different kinds of fiduciaries — but generally speaking, they’re the ones managing your company’s 401(k) plan, making benefit determinations, interpreting the plan document, and/or selecting the plan’s fund menu, or providing investment advice to those who make those decisions. Fiduciaries are legally obligated to make decisions solely in the interest of plan participants and their beneficiaries. You can learn more about fiduciaries here.

Form 5500: Each year, 401(k) plan sponsors are required to file a Form 5500 with the federal government. This annual report outlines basic information about the sponsor’s business, its retirement plans, total participants, and other details. The document is typically accompanied by secondary forms or “schedules” with additional detail. Sponsors with at least 100 employees are required to attach an audited financial statement as well, while sponsors with fewer than 100 employees may be able to fill out a shorter version of the form. For more info, read our article on Form 5500.

Graded Vesting: Employers may gradually allow 401(k) plan participants to vest in the employer’s contributions over time (e.g., 20% after one year, 40% after two years). This approach is called graded vesting. Federal law mandates that it can’t take longer than six years for employees to vest 100% of their match.

Hardship Withdrawal: Your retirement account wasn’t designed to serve as a personal rainy day fund. That said, some retirement plans allow for participants to take “hardship withdrawals” for certain circumstances like to pay for medical expenses or to purchase a primary residence (sorry, no summer homes). In most cases, hardship withdrawals are subject to federal and state income taxes, plus, if you’re not yet age 59 ½, there is a federal early distribution tax penalty of 10%. Some states may also impose an early distribution penalty (e.g. California’s is 2.5%).

Highly Compensated Employee (HCE): If an employee earns over $130,000 annually (as of 2020) and (if the plan administrator chooses to use this criterion) ranks among a company’s top 20% in compensation, they’re considered a highly compensated employee (HCE) by the IRS. If they own more than a 5% stake in the business, or are an employee with a family relationship to someone that does, in either 2019 or 2020, they’re also considered an HCE for 2020 regardless of pay. The distinction between HCEs and the rest of a company’s population matters in the context of nondiscrimination testing.

Individual Retirement Plan (IRA): While 401(k) plans are offered by employers, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are — you guessed it — only available to individuals. Traditional IRAs offer many of the same tax benefits as conventional employer-sponsored plans, though participants are only allowed to contribute a much smaller amount ($6,000 per year for individuals as of 2020, plus an additional $1,000 if age 50 or over in 2020). Still, IRAs are a great option for self-employed individuals or those without access to an employer-sponsored plan. If you fall into either of those buckets, learn about Guideline’s IRA offering here.

Illinois Secure Choice: An Illinois retirement program requiring certain employers to enroll their employees into a state-managed IRA. Learn more about the program here.

Liquidity: In short, liquidity refers to the immediate usability of an asset. If you’ve got cash in your wallet, that’s “liquid” — you could easily spend that money if you wanted to. Retirement accounts aren’t considered liquid until you reach retirement age because you can’t take distributions while employed, unless your plan allows for hardship withdrawals or other such special circumstances without a penalty, absent loans, hardship withdraws, etc.

Loan: You should avoid dipping into your retirement savings unnecessarily. That said, individuals can sometimes borrow money from their 401(k) account and gradually pay it back. Rules and eligibility requirements vary from plan to plan, but, unlike hardship withdrawals, IRS taxes and penalties don’t apply to 401(k) loans unless you default on them.

Mutual Fund: “Mutual fund” might sound like Wall Street jargon, but it’s a simple concept. A mutual fund is a pool of investors’ money that’s subsequently invested in stocks, bonds, and managed by someone else (a fund manager). Mutual funds don’t put investors’ eggs in one basket — meaning if one specific stock goes under, the damage is limited. This quality makes them a popular investment option for retirement accounts.

Nondiscrimination Testing: By law, a company’s 401(k) plan can’t favor owners, executives, or those making the most money. Annual nondiscrimination tests look at employee participation, employer contributions, and other factors to determine if the plan is compliant with those requirements. Certain retirement plans (see Safe Harbor) are exempt from some nondiscrimination testing rules.

OregonSaves: An Oregon retirement program that makes it easy for employees to contribute part of their pay into a personal IRA.

Pre-Tax Contributions: Depending on the plan, employees can either contribute to their retirement account before or after federal and state taxes are taken out of their paycheck. As the name suggests, pre-tax 401(k) contributions are taken out before, thus they reduce the employee’s gross income in that year, potentially lowering income taxes. See “Traditional 401(k) plan” for greater detail or click here.

Profit-Sharing: In the context of retirement, profit sharing involves an employer making tax-deductible contributions that are allocated to employees’ 401(k) accounts. Think of it as a bonus deposited directly into employees’ retirement accounts. Profit-sharing comes with a slew of benefits for employers and employees—learn about those here.

Portability: Portability refers to the ease with which you can transfer an employee’s account from one employer’s plan to the plan of a different employer after a job change. In other words, if you contribute to a 401(k) account at your current job, you’ll have the option of rolling over that account to an IRA or future employer’s retirement plan (assuming the future employer’s plan permits such rollovers).

Portfolio: This term simply represents your overall collection of investments. A diverse retirement portfolio features of stocks, bonds, commodities, mutual funds, and other investments. The mix of these reflects how aggressive or conservative an investment strategy is.

Qualified Distributions: Individuals can only take money out of their retirement account when specific events (such as death, disability, termination of employment or at retirement age or, if the plan permits, financial hardship) occur. These are called qualified distributions. Except in the case of Roth 401(k) plans, those distributions are subject to tax, and sometimes the early distribution penalty discussed above.

Required Minimum Distribution (RMD): While being “hands-off” on your retirement savings is usually a good thing, eventually, you do need to dip into those funds. In the case of HCEs, the IRS requires individuals in their early 70s to begin drawing down their 401(k) accounts and pay taxes on these amounts, whether or not they terminate their employment. Employees who are not HCEs, but who have attained the RMD age, may defer taxation until after they actually terminate their employment. These are called required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Rollover: When you move your retirement savings from one plan to another (as might be the case when switching employers), that’s called a rollover. If the old and new employers share the same third-party 401(k) plan provider, the transfer is a simple one. In all other cases, the old provider will likely directly transfer the value of the account in cash to the new plan.

Roth 401(k) Plan: Roth 401(k) plans allow employees to contribute to their retirement accounts on an “after-tax” basis, meaning they won’t owe taxes on that money, or the investment income on that money, when they retire. Roth accounts are a popular option for younger employees since they have more time for their earnings to compound (see compound interest).

Roth IRA: Roth IRAs allow individuals to contribute to their retirement accounts on an “after-tax” basis, meaning they won’t owe taxes on that money or on the investment income on that money when they retire. Unlike 401(k) plans, IRAs are not necessarily employer-sponsored.

Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans: Companies that offer retirement plans are subject to many compliance requirements, including nondiscrimination testing. Safe Harbor plans are a special kind of 401(k) plan that is exempt from this testing requirement. As a trade-off, these plans require companies to contribute a minimum amount to their employees’ retirement accounts. Learn about these minimums here.

Summary Plan Description (SPD): By law, companies with retirement plans are required to provide employees with an overview of the program that is written in language designed to be understood by the average participant. How the plan works, eligibility requirements, vesting details, and other important details need to be included.

Target-Date Fund: Investment funds designed to evolve ahead of a specific point in time are called target-date funds. In the context of retirement, a target date fund’s strategy typically gets more conservative the closer an individual gets to retirement age. Learn more about target-date funds here.

Tax-Deferred: If you own a 401(k) account, your investment earnings are growing on a “tax-deferred” basis. This means that, unlike in a normal taxable investment account, you won’t pay taxes on earnings in your account every year. Tax deferral also makes it possible for your account to grow faster (see compound interest). When it comes time to retire, you’ll just owe income taxes on what you take out.

Tax Penalty: If you take out retirement funds before turning 59½ years old, you’ll do so at a cost. The IRS will assess a 10% fee (a tax penalty) in addition to federal and state income taxes. Some states may impose a similar tax (e.g. California’s is 2.5%).

Traditional 401(k) Plan: Traditional 401(k) retirement plans allow participants to set aside a share of their paycheck on a pre-tax basis. This means that the IRS can only tax these funds when the individual receives a distribution from the plan, with the possible exception of the RMD discussed above, where taxation is imposed on an HCE even if the required minimum amount is not distributed. Learn more here.

Traditional IRA: Traditional IRAs are tax-advantaged accounts at a bank, insurance company or other regulated financial institution that allow individuals to contribute money on a pre-tax basis. This means that the IRS can only tax these funds when the individual receives a distribution from the account. Unlike 401(k) plans, IRAs are not necessarily employer-sponsored.

Voluntary Open Multiple Employer Plan: Small businesses, under the coordination of a third-party, can be bundled together under one retirement plan. This arrangement gives them more competitive pricing but provides less room for plan customization.

Voluntary Payroll Deduction IRA: As an alternative to a 401(k) plan, companies can help their employees enroll in a voluntary payroll deduction IRA. Individuals sign up for these accounts and the employer only has to facilitate the transfer of their contributions from their paychecks to the IRA.

Workplace Retirement Plan: Companies often offer their employees access to a retirement account as a benefit. A traditional 401(k) plan is the most popular example of a workplace retirement plan.


Need help keeping your terminology straight? If you’re thinking about offering or upgrading your retirement plan, we can help simplify things. To learn more about Guideline, schedule a plan consultation today.

The information provided herein is general in nature and is for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for specific tax, legal, financial, personal investment advice, and/or a guarantee of performance that considers all relevant facts and circumstances. You are advised to consult a qualified financial adviser or tax professional before relying on the information provided herein.

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