On a recent edition of Jim Cramer's Mad Money, he urgently (does he do things otherwise?) recommended that you ONLY contribute up to the employer's match in your 401(k) and put the rest of what you normally would have contributed into an IRA.

Unfortunately, I missed most of segment and I didn't get to understand the Why?

I have a rollover IRA (from my previous employer's 401(k)) and a 401(k) from my current employer. I'm putting 10% of my salary in my 401(k) which is more than enough to get the employer match. Given my income level, if I put money in an IRA (which has limits on deductions) before maxing out my 401(k) I won't get the same tax advantage as if I just threw everything into a 401(k).

So why would anyone contribute just enough to get the employer match on the 401(k) and put the rest in an IRA?

  • 1
    eh, its all about income level. maxing out 401k and IRA is closer to ideal, but if you HAVE to prioritize, then I suppose the finer details are relevant. IRA's max out at low amounts in comparison, so I don't agree with this sentiment at all
    – CQM
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 9:27
  • @CQM - there's an annual expense level where even you would agree that unmatched 401(k) deposits make little sense. I think it's around 1%, you may think it's higher. Consider, for most, the 401(k) goal is to withhold money at 25%, but withdraw at 10 or 15%. How many years of 1-2% expenses will wipe out that potential gain, and then some? (Not to mention turning LT cap gains to ordinary income) Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 15:41
  • Hoping I don't get flagged for this but...If you miss part of a show on CNBC you can find it on their website under the CNBCTV link at the top. Also, quite a few of their post trading hours shows (Fast Money, Mad Money, etc) are available on iTunes for free. Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 15:22

6 Answers 6


The matching funds are free money, so it is a very good idea to take that money off the table. Look at it as free 100% return: you deposit $1000, your employer matches that $1000, you now have $2000 in your 401(k). (Obviously, I'm keeping things simple. Vesting schedules mean that the employer match isn't yours to keep immediately, but rather after some time; usually in chunks.)

Beyond the employer match, you need to consider what is available for investment in a 401(k). Typically, your options are more limited then in an IRA. The cost of the 401(k) should be considered, as it isn't trivial for most. (The specifics will of course vary, but in large IRA accounts are cheaper.)

So, it's about the opportunity costs. Up to the employer match, it doesn't matter as much that your investment choices are more limited in a 401(k), because you're getting 100% return just on the matching funds. Once that is exhausted, you have more opportunity for returns, due to having more options available to you, by going with an account that provides more choices.

The overall principle here is that you have to look at the whole picture. This is similar to the notion that you should pay-down your high interest debt before investing, because from the perspective of investing the interest you're paying represent a loss, or negative return on investment, since money is going out of your accounts. Specific to your question, you have to consider the various types of investment vehicles available to you. It is not just about 401(k) and IRA accounts. You may also consider a straight brokerage account, a savings account, CDs, etc. The costs and returns that you can typically expect are your guides through the available choices.

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    +1 excellent answer, I'd add the cost within the 401(k) may very well be so high that deposits above match should be avoided. Hinted above, just looking to amplify the sentiment. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 23:07
  • Good point. That totally slipped my mind. Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 1:42

I'd hazard that Jim is mostly worried that people are getting ripped off by high employer 401(k) fund fees. A lot of employers offer funds with fees over 1% a year. This sounds low-ish if you don't realize that the real (inflation-adjusted) return for the fund will probably average out to about 4%, so it's really something like a quarter of your earnings gone.

With an IRA, you don't have to do that. You can get an IRA provider which offers good, cheap index funds and the like (cough Vanguard cough). Fund fees will probably be closer to 0.1%-ish.


The maximum IRA contribution in 2013 will be $5,500. The maximum for a 401(k) contribution will be $17,500. That extra capacity is enough to recommend a 401(k) over an IRA for many people. These people may be best served by putting money into the 401(k) and then rolling it over into a rollover IRA when they change jobs.

Also, certain people have retirement plans which offer them good cheap index funds. These people probably don't need to worry quite as much.

Finally, having two accounts is more complicated. Please contact someone who knows more about taxes than I am to figure out what limitations apply for contributing to both IRAs and 401(k)s in the same year.


In addition to George Marian's excellent advice, I'll add that if you're hitting the limits on IRA contributions, then you'd go back to your 401(k).

So, put enough into your 401(k) to get the match, then max out IRA contributions to give you access to more and better investment options, then go back to your 401(k) until you top that out as well, assuming you have that much available to invest for retirement.

  • I thought you can't deduct IRA contributions if you participate (or eligible) for 401k. According to money.cnn.com/retirement/guide/IRA_traditional.moneymag/… "If you do have a 401(k) or other retirement plan at work, your contribution is fully deductible only if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $89,000 for a married couple filing jointly or $56,000 for an individual. "
    – Vitalik
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 13:57
  • True, but I've typically seen this as "Roth IRA" rather than regular IRA contributions, so deduction is no longer an issue. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 23:10
  • 1
    There is a limit on what you can deduct when contributing to a traditional IRA if you also contribute to a 401(k), depending on filing status and income. But the contribution limit doesn't change. Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 7:11

Early this year I wrote an article Are you 401(k)o’ed? I described the data from a 401(k) expense survey and the punchline was that the average large retirement plan (over 1000 participants) expense was 1.08%, and for smaller plans it rose to 1.24%.

As I commented below, if one's goal is to make deposits with income that avoid a tax of 25%, and hope to withdraw it at retirement at 15%, it doesn't take long for a 1% fee to completely negate the benefit of pretax savings.

These numbers are averages, in the same article, I mention (ok, I brag) that my company plan has an S&P fund that costs .05%. That's 1% over 20 years.

The sound bite of "deposit to the match" needs to be followed by "depending on the choice of investments and their expenses" within the 401(k).

Every answer here has added excellent points, fennec's last sentence shouldn't be ignored, there's a phaseout for IRA deductibility, and another for Roth eligibility. For Married filing joint, IRA deduction starts to be lost at $92K, and Roth deposit disallowed at $173K. This adds a bit to the complexity of the decision, but doesn't change the implication of the 1%+ 401(k) fees.

  • It seems that some calculator is necessary to make sense of the tax implications. Thanks for the info.
    – Tim Reddy
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 2:49

Unfortunately, I missed most of segment and I didn't get to understand the Why?

To begin with, Cramer is an entertainer and his business is pushing stocks. If you put money into mutual funds (which most 401k plans limit your investments to), then you are not purchasing his product. Also, many 401k plans have limited selections of funds, and many of those funds are not good performers. While his stock-picking track record is much better than mine, his isn't that great.

He does point out that there are a lot of fees (mostly hidden) in 401k accounts. If you read your company's 5500 filing (especialy Schedule A), you can determine just how much your plan administrators are paying themselves. If paying excessive fees is your concern, then you should be rolling over your 401k into your IRA when you quit (or the employer-match vests, which ever is later).

Finally, Cramer thinks that most of his audience will max out their IRA contributions and have only a little bit left for their 401k. I'm most definately "not most people" as I'm maxing out both my 401k and IRA contributions.


If you exceed the income limit for deducting a traditional IRA (which is very low if you are covered by a 401(k) ), then your IRA options are basically limited to a Roth IRA. The Cramer person probably meant to compare 401(k) and IRA from the same pre-/post-tax-ness, so i.e. Traditional 401(k) vs. Traditional IRA, or Roth 401(k) vs. Roth IRA. Comparing a Roth investment against a Traditional investment goes into a whole other topic that only confuses what is being discussed here.

So if deducting a traditional IRA is ruled out, then I don't think Cramer's advice can be as simply applied regarding a Traditional 401(k). (However, by that logic, and since most people on 401(k) have Traditional 401(k), and if you are covered by a 401(k) then you cannot deduct a Traditional IRA unless you are super low income, that would mean Cramer's advice is not applicable in most situations. So I don't really know what to think here.)

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