What return should I expect on my 401(k)?

1 min read by Rachel Carey Last updated November 10, 2023

As with any retirement plan, it’s crucial to understand exactly how your 401(k) plan investments perform over time.

In the world of retirement planning, the 401(k) retirement savings plan stands as one of the most popular and widely used financial routes to wealth in later life.  

What is a 401(k)? 

Before we dive into 401(k) returns, it's important to grasp the basics of a 401(k) plan.  

A 401(k) is a retirement savings and investment account employers offer employees. Employees can contribute a portion of their pre-tax income to the 401(k) account, and in many cases, employers match a percentage of these contributions. 

The money contributed to a 401(k) is then invested in various assets, such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and even real estate. These investments can generate returns, which are crucial in determining the overall growth of your retirement savings. 

How does a 401(k) work? 

Understanding how a 401(k) investment works is crucial for anyone looking to secure their financial future. 

  1. Enrollment - The first step in utilizing a 401(k) plan is enrollment. Employees who are eligible for their employer's 401(k) plan can choose to participate. Eligibility criteria can vary from one employer to another, but many companies offer these plans to full-time employees. 

  2. Contribution - Once enrolled, you can contribute a portion of your pre-tax income to your 401(k) account. These contributions are made through automatic deductions from your paychecks, making it a convenient way to save for retirement. The money is set aside before income taxes are calculated, which can reduce the participant's current tax liability. 

  3. Employer match (optional) - One attractive feature of many 401(k) plans is the employer match. Some companies offer to match a portion of your contributions up to a certain limit. For instance, if your employer offers a 50% match on contributions up to 6% of your salary, and you contribute 6%, they will match 3% of your salary and add it to your 401(k) account.  

  4. Investment choices - Most 401(k) plans offer investment options, including mutual funds, index funds, stocks, bonds, and more. Participants can allocate their contributions among these options based on their risk tolerance and long-term financial goals. Diversifying your investments can help manage risk and potentially increase returns over time. 

  5. Tax benefits - One of the primary advantages of a traditional 401(k) is the tax benefits it provides. Contributions are tax-deductible, reducing your taxable income for the year you make them. This can lead to a lower tax bill in the present. However, when you eventually withdraw money from your 401(k) during retirement, it is subject to income tax. 

  6. Rollovers - If you change jobs or retire, you can typically roll your 401(k) over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or your new employer's 401(k) plan. This allows you to continue benefiting from tax-deferred growth and manage your retirement savings more effectively. 

  7. Withdrawals and penalties - Generally, you cannot withdraw money from your 401(k) without penalties until you reach age 59½. Early withdrawals are subject to a 10 percent penalty and regular income taxes. Some exceptions exist, such as using funds for specific medical expenses or purchasing your first home. 

  8. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) - Once you reach a certain age, currently 72 (or 73 if you reach that age by 1 January 2023), you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your traditional 401(k). These mandatory withdrawals are subject to income tax and are intended to ensure that you start using your retirement savings for income in retirement. 

    Discover more about RMDs here

  9. Roth 401(k) option - In addition to traditional 401(k) plans, some employers offer a Roth 401(k) option. With a Roth 401(k), contributions are made with after-tax dollars, meaning they do not provide an immediate tax benefit. However, qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free, making a Roth 401(k) an attractive choice for those who expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement. 

  10. Portability - 401(k) plans are portable, meaning you can take your account with you if you change jobs or retire. You can do this by rolling it over into an IRA or your new employer's plan, allowing you to maintain control over your retirement savings. 

What is a good 401(k) return? 

Ultimately, what constitutes a good 401(k) return depends on your financial goals and circumstances. It's crucial to have a well-thought-out investment strategy aligned with your objectives, regularly review your portfolio and consider consulting with a financial advisor to ensure that your 401(k) investments are on track to meet your retirement goals. 

If you don’t have a financial advisor, finding one is easy. At Unbiased, we do all the hard work and find a financial advisor best suited to meet your unique needs. Find your perfect match here.  

According to the financial advice website Motleyfool.com, the average annual return on 401(k) investments is 6–8 percent. This is based on an average investment mix of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds. This is an average, though remember that 401(k) returns can vary yearly, going down and up. 

When considering a good 401(k) return, it is prudent to reflect upon your risk tolerance. Conservative investment options may provide lower returns with less volatility, while a more aggressive strategy may provide greater gains and more potential for losses. This is where diversification will help provide stability. 

What impacts your 401(k) return?  

While your 401(k) is a long-term investment, your investment mix and consequent returns may be subject to rises and falls, depending on several impact factors. 

When considering what impacts your 401(k) investment, your asset allocation is probably one of the most important impact factors. Determined by your risk tolerance and time horizon, this describes how you distribute your investments between different asset classes such as stocks, bonds and cash. 

Market conditions will impact returns, for example, interest rates being raised (or lowered) to control economic conditions, affecting bond rates or even the weather affecting the sales of temperature-dependent stocks. Financial experts make it their business to predict and analyze these market conditions, which makes consulting with a financial advisor before investing a smart move. 

How can you calculate your 401(k) return? 

When looking at how to calculate your 401(k) return, it’s worth bearing in mind that any estimate is exactly that – an estimate. As previously discussed, multiple factors can impact your investment returns, with many market changes caused by unexpected events, such as international conflict or climate-induced extreme weather events. 

Rather than calculating your 401(k) return, you may find it more practical to calculate exactly how much of a return you will require for retirement and arrange your investments accordingly. Specify your goal amount, divide this over your time horizon, include your and your employer’s contributions and account for fees and other deductions.  

Many financial planners suggest contributing 10–15 percent of your 401(k) income. However, this figure will be bespoke to each person. This is why sitting down with a financial advisor can be so beneficial. 

You can improve your 401(k) return by taking a dynamic approach; you should constantly assess whether you have the right investment mix for the market conditions. It’s also prudent to increase the percentage contributed in line with affordability as your salary increases. 

What fees do you have to pay for your 401(k)?  

Be sure to account for 401(k) fees and expenses when considering your 401(k) return. Fees and expenses associated with your 401(k) investments can erode your returns by as much as $30,000 over time. High fees reduce the overall return on your investments, so choosing low-cost investment options is important when available. 

To be exact, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) stated in a 2023 report that throughout 20 years, a one percent annual fee can cut down the value of a portfolio by $30,000, compared to one with a fee of 0.25 percent.  

How often should you check your 401(k)?  

Answer: all the time. As previously stated, being dynamic in your approach to your 401(k) can improve your return. Adjusting your investments before market conditions change or in reaction to this will help improve returns over the long term. 

The bottom line 

401(k) returns are critical to your retirement savings journey. Understanding how they work, what influences them and how to evaluate and optimize them is key to achieving your financial goals in retirement.  

By taking a strategic approach to your 401(k) investments and staying committed to your long-term plan, you can work towards a financially secure and comfortable retirement.  

Remember that it's essential to stay informed about your investments, adapt to changing circumstances and seek professional advice to make the most of your 401(k) returns. Start getting the right advice today 

Senior Content Writer

Rachel Carey

Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.