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5 Reasons NOT to Invest in That 401(k)

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By Nicole Lapin on February 8, 2012

It may seem like a deal too good to pass up. But contrary to what many financial experts will tell you, investing in a 401(k) isn’t for everyone. Here’s why.

1. You don’t have a personal savings account that covers six to nine months’ worth of bills and expenses.

Experts say you should have at least three to six months’ worth saved in case of an emergency, but more and more people are moving toward six to nine months as the benchmark. You need to have liquid, readily available cash to cover expenses if you lose your job or are in a pinch. Contribute here first before your 401(k).

2. Your company doesn’t match your contributions.

If your company isn’t matching contributions, there are other investment strategies you can use to save for retirement and figure out how much you will have when you do retire. Since your 401(k) is directly connected to the (completely unpredictable) market conditions in 30 to 40 years, you ought to choose more conservative saving vehicles.

3. You have a lot of debt.

Don’t forget your debt’s interest is compounding just as much as money that’s sitting in savings. If you have a substantial amount of debt with icky interest rates, you’re better off chiseling away at it early than investing it in the market.

4. You’re saving for the downpayment of a house.

Typical 401(k)s allow a penalty-free early withdrawal for those who have not been previous homeowners in the past two years. This is awesome for first-time buyers. But there’s a catch: Only $10,000 of the early withdrawal avoids the 10 percent tax penalty on the funds, which means that you’ll be paying an additional 10 percent tax on top of your additional income tax (which is determined by your tax bracket on those funds).

5. You need cash readily available.

Money put into your 401(k) should not be touched until the age you can withdraw without penalty. Open up a savings account at Fidelity or ING. It usually takes two or three days to electronically transfer funds back and forth, which means it’s there when you need it, just not when you’re at the ATM.

Although this vehicle isn’t ideal for retirement — it’s taxed as ordinary income tax every year — it’s a great way to start saving that chunk of change you can eventually use to open an IRA. Consider money-market savings accounts too, as they typically earn higher interest rates and are still less risky than stocks invested in at the beginning of 401(k)s.

Nicole Lapin is the founder and CEO of Nothing But Gold Productions, a multi-media company that creates accessible financial content for TV, print and digital outlets. She is also the editor-in-chief of Recessionista.com, the only online destination that provides non-judgey female-focused money news. Sources say she was the youngest anchor ever on CNN and CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @nicolelapin.

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