Friday, November 20, 2009

Turning Time into Retirement Investments

It is getting towards the end of the year. And while this past ten months has been a scary ride for those that are still employed, it might be possible to turn it into a boon for Boomers close to retirement. Chances are, you have worked harder this past year than you have in any within recent memory. Chances are, this included not taking vacation time or tapping any of that sick pay your employer might give you.

Is it possible that this could be your chance to max out your 401(k)?

We have found that 2009 was not so kind to those investing in their 401(k). Employers have reduced or eliminated their matching contribution and many recent surveys have suggested that this will be slow to return. What was once considered the competitive lure for many employees has no simply become a sidebar in the search for a job. For many, and employers know this all too well, just landing employment is benefit enough.

But what about those who already have a job? What if you are a long-term employee? Many of us, as we have noted numerous times in this blog (post about matchless strategies) and on, have taken the wrong path when confronted with this issue. Far too many of us reduced our contribution to our defined contribution plans when this occurred. Some have even determined that if the employer doesn't match, you shouldn't contribute either. And just as bad for your retirement future, you did nothing to help make up for that plan shortfall.

As we have noted, the best way to make up for this decrease in contribution is to increase the one you are making. For older workers, the higher salary they receive may make this possible. For younger workers, the decision becomes one of increased frugality, living well within their means and doing without some of the luxuries they may have built into their budget. If your employer contributed 3% and you contributed enough to make the match effective, your best move is to make up for the employer's shortfall.

Yet, there may be another way that your employer might be willing to allow. In an effort to get more people contributing more to these all-important accounts, the Obama administration has allowed retirement investors the option of rolling unused vacation pay or accrued sick pay into their plans.

This past year may have seen an increased workload at your job because of employee cut-backs. This may have forced you to defer a much needed vacation in favor of staying right where you were. Fear of seeming dispensable at a critical time, even though the need for vacation has been proven the best way to increase productivity. But this leaves you with an account full of unused vacation time.

Contributing this sort of payment to your 401(k) requires your employer to make some changes to their plan. Even as some have reduced the availability of their matching contributions, some have added this provision to their plans to allow exiting employees to have their unpaid time put into their 401(k) plan prior to rollovers and to allow those who did not use what they had, to use the time to contribute to existing accounts. The later can only be done if you have not maxed out your account (currently at $16,500 for those under 50 and $20,000 for those over that age).

Companies may find this incentive very alluring. Not only does it make them slightly more competitive (for one, employees are on the job more throughout the year) but it offer the illusion of a benefit increase without the actual pay increase.

If your company currently does offer this or is considering it, keep in mind that it will not come with or apply to any matching benefits the company offers. And they may also see it as a temporary offering rather than a fixed part of the plan. The only thing that is certain is the option must be nondiscriminatory.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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