Deciding What To Do With An Old 401(k)

Deciding on 401(k) Plan

Earlier this year I changed jobs after being with my prior employer for over 16 years.

Beyond the adjustment of that change at a personal level, there was also a financial decision to be made–and that was what to do with the 401(k) through my prior employer.

Rather than cover the various options in detail here, I will approach this from the perspective of how I approached this decision and what I have ultimately done. With that said, there are four basic choices to be made with an old 401(k) plan:

  1. Keep the money in your former employer’s 401(k) plan
  2. Roll the money into your new employer’s 401(k) plan
  3. Move the money into an IRA
  4. Cash out and receive the money as a distribution

Take It Slow

Often times it will take some time to adjust to the change of jobs, and therefore I believe it is important that you don’t rush into making a decision on what to do with the old 401(k) plan.

Once you have had a chance to digest the change, you can review the options and decide what will work best for your situation.

It is important to note that depending on the amount invested in your old plan, you may not have all of the above options available to you–and therefore you may have a limited time to make your decision. However, in many cases that is still usually between 30 days and 90 days, but check with your old employer and/or the account provider.

Evaluating My Options

For me, and I would hope it would be the same for most, the last option of cashing out is not an option that is desirable. Not only would there be an early withdrawal penalty but there would also be income taxes due on the distribution.

Therefore it was easy to eliminate that decision.

With the remaining three options, one of the big considerations is what investment options are available under the old 401(k) and new 401(k) plans. The choice to move the money to an IRA is the one with the most flexibility as you then have full control over how to invest that money.

Given my new pursuit of dividend growth investing, that option is certainly enticing.

However, as a long-time index fund investor and one that is currently on track for early retirement based on my investments in said index funds, I had to weigh the impact that this might have on those plans.

With the intent to keep money invested in index funds, there is appeal to keep the money in either of the 401(k) plans as the index funds offered in corporate plans may have an expense ratio that is better than what one can get individually–although the new zero fee index funds from Fidelity may be changing that picture.

Evaluating Your Choices

My Decision

Recognizing that my strategy to reach FIRE has been built on a base involving index funds, I was not comfortable completely changing course and putting all of that money into my dividend portfolio.

However, I have decided to implement a mix of two options–roll the money into my new employer’s 401(k) plan and move money into an IRA, and both will have a flavor that ties back to dividends.

The two 401(k) plans had very similar fund options with expense ratios that were a wash.

One big difference is that my new employer’s 401(k) plan offers Fidelity index funds, and as seen in my recent dividend income report, some of those index funds pay dividends. My old employer’s 401(k) plan had investments managed by Northern Trust and their index funds did not distribute dividends.

The majority of the funds from the old plan have been moved into the new plan.

Where I have deviated from that plan is with the portion of the old 401(k) that was invested in an international fund. It has largely under-performed and with the funds I have moved into the new plan I already have adequate international coverage for my liking.

Therefore, I am selling my holding in the international fund and having those funds moved into the Rollover IRA that was recently opened as part of my pension rollover.

These funds will be invested into my DGI portfolio and provide another nice influx of cash to dividend paying stocks.

Wrapping Up

It is important to remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution when deciding what to do with your old 401(k) and the answer that is right for me may not be right for you.

In my particular situation, I believe that my decision to direct the majority of the funds into my new employer’s 401(k) plan maintains my overall strategy to reach my FIRE goal while directing a portion of the money to my IRA will allow me to step up my long-term goals for how much of our retirement income can come from dividends.

On the plus side, I could not have had better timing on making this change either, as one of the Fidelity funds that I directed money into within the new 401(k) plan has just paid out a dividend that included my new shares!

Have you faced this decision with an old 401(k) plan?

What do you think about my decision?

6 thoughts on “Deciding What To Do With An Old 401(k)”

  1. I have rolled our old 401ks into self directed IRAs. Then like you, use a mix of dividend and bond oriented index funds and dividend stocks to put the money to work with an emphasis on generating tax advantaged income. I have never rolled money to a new employer 401k. I like the additional investment management options an IRA provides. Tom

    1. One of the funds in the new employer plan is one that I don’t believe is open to individual investors–FGCKX–so that played a factor for me as well. The S&P 500 index fund in the plan is FUSVX with a nice 0.015% expense ratio, so I didn’t mind that being in the new plan.

      The next step will be determining how I want to allocate the funds that I am moving to the IRA, and fortunately the market is presenting some buying opportunities right now with the move downward.

      Thanks for sharing your experience Tom.

  2. Your decision sounds logical to me, DivvyDad. I could see myself doing something similar. Having a chunk to add to the dividend portfolio is nice… always fun to gain full control over some of the funds.
    I’ve changed jobs a few times in my career and have always moved the old 401(k) to a rollover IRA I opened. However, as I approach the tail end of my career I’m seeing some value in possibly keeping money from my last employer in their 401(k), as it could allow me to potentially tap that money prior to age 59&1/2 without penalty as long as I left my employer during or after the calendar year in which I reached age 55. I’m not sure I’d take advantage of such an option, but it seems like an option I’d want to have if choosing to retire early (and within that 55 to 59 age range), as gaining early access to traditional IRAs accounts via an exemption may be trickier.

    1. Thanks for the feedback ED, and you raise a very interesting point to consider about the possibility of tapping into the 401(k) funds between the ages of 55 and 59. With my target to retire at 52, that is an area I am still working on in terms of the optimal strategy on how to utilize our various accounts to fund those early years.

      Also, one aspect that I didn’t mention but did weigh slightly on my decision, is that I am trying to manage the funds in the IRA and potentially look at moving them into a Solo 401(k) to open the back-door Roth as a possibility. In the meantime I am funneling additional capital into our taxable account, but if I could take advantage of that it would give me additional flexibility in tax-advantaged accounts.

  3. Tough decision and you were patient enough to think it through. One advantage of rolling over to your latest employers 401K is that it allows you to pull funds at age 55 (penalty free) if you choose to retire at 55. This is a feature not available to IRAs and always something to consider.

    1. Definitely something to consider, as my target is to retire—or at least semi-retire—by the age of 52. Those first years before reaching 59.5 will need to be well thought out, and this factor may come into play. Another factor will be how well I do at building up that forward dividend income, as that can also supplement the early years depending on whether we do end up doing some form of paid work.

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