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Stop making 401(k) contributions?

Chris Farrell Feb 10, 2009

Question: Hi Chris – I’m 38 and there’s a better than average chance that I won’t make the next cut when my company has another layoff. I’ve always socked away 401k money since my 20’s but think that now might be a good time to keep that money in cash to help provide even more cushion during a job search.

We currently have almost 3 months salary in the bank. My wife works part time and takes care of our 2 kids. Would it make sense for me to set aside the money that would normally go to the 401k, and then invest in a Roth IRA at the end of the year if I don’t have to tap into it? We have no credit card debt – just a couple mortgages, a car loan and several monthly prescriptions. Thanks – Mike, Denver, CO

Answer: Your instincts are right. I would stop contributing to the 401(k) and stockpile more cash in an FDIC-insured account in anticipation of tough times. You don’t want to take any risk with the savings for now. Another way to build up savings is to look at what debts can you eliminate. It reads as if you have a mortgage, second mortgage (either a home equity loan or line of credit) and a car loan. Can you get rid of the second mortgage? How about the car loan? Both?

The one caveat to this advice is if your company offers a match in the 401(k). Do you reduce your contributions to the match or just stop altogether? Normally, I would say cut to the match and that may still work for you. But if the odds are high that you’ll be laid off soon I’d rather you focus on getting your household balance sheet in good shape to weather a job search. And, of course, it isn’t an issue if the company doesn’t match a portion of your retirement contributions..

Good luck.

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