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The Basics

Build a bigger nest egg

Take advantage of higher limits allowing you to tuck away more money into 401(k)s and other tax-favored retirement plans, even play catch-up if you're 50 or older.

By Karen Hube

If you're worried you're not saving enough for retirement, you can be thankful for one thing: Contribution limits to all kinds of retirement plans -- including 401(k)s and IRAs -- increase each year with inflation after 2008. Older workers can save more on top of that with catch-up contributions.

For years, investors and advisers complained that contribution limits were too low, says Clint Stretch, director of tax legislative affairs at Deloitte & Touche in Washington, D.C. While 401(k) limits have risen more or less in tandem with inflation, usually in $500 increments, IRA limits of $2,000 a year, set in 1981, weren't adjusted until 2002. Big leaps since then have more than doubled the limit for 2008.

How much you can set aside

Here's the retirement-saving environment today:

  • Individual retirement accounts and Roth IRAs. Contribution limits for regular IRAs and Roth IRAs are $5,000 for 2008. Plus, catch-up provisions let workers 50 and older kick in an extra $1,000. If you're skeptical about what difference an extra $1,000 a year in savings can make per person, take a look at the numbers: If you squirrel away $6,000 each year instead of $5,000 for 15 years and earn an average 8% annual return, you'll end up with $170,000 rather than $141,000.

  • 401(k), Roth 401(k) and 403(b) accounts. The maximum you can put into these hugely popular employer-sponsored retirement plans is $15,500, and it's indexed to inflation.

  • SIMPLE and SEP plans. Investors in SIMPLE plans offered by employers with fewer than 100 employees can put in more, too. So can self-employed people, who can invest more in SIMPLE plans or boost their contributions with a SEP (simplified employee pension IRA).

  • A bonus if you're 50 or older. The biggest retirement-savings benefits go to people age 50 and over. Thanks to so-called catch-up provisions, they can contribute more to their retirement plans than most folks. They can invest as much as $20,500 in a 401(k) in 2008: $15,500 plus a $5,000 catch-up contribution.

Your top priority should be to invest the maximum in your 401(k) or 403(b) plan, if you are eligible for one. Contributions in 401(k)s are made with pre-tax money, and your employer may match a portion of what you put in. These benefits make a 401(k) too good to pass up. (See "7 ways to mess up your 401(k).")

What's more, the law accelerates the vesting of employers' matching contributions -- that is, the full rights to an employer's match. "In the past, company matches had to be fully vested after five years, or according to a phase-in schedule lasting seven years," says Bill Arnone, director of employee financial education at Ernst & Young in New York.

Now, employers must grant 100% vesting after no more than three years or adopt this phase-in schedule: 20% after two years, 40% after three years, 60% after four years, 80% after five years and 100% after six years.

Video on MSN Money

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Avoiding taxes with a Roth 401(k)
CNBC talks with Jim Suits, of Summit Capital Advisors, and Jacob Gold, of Jacob Gold and Assoc., about the Roth 401(k).

What if you don't have a 401(k)?

If you aren't eligible for a 401(k), your first priority should be to contribute to whatever retirement plan your employer makes available to you -- a 403(b), SEP or SIMPLE plan.

If you're self-employed, you can invest in an SEP or SIMPLE. Like the 401(k), these plans allow pre-tax contributions, and your money grows tax deferred.

So you can pat yourself on the back if you manage to contribute the maximum to your 401(k) or a similar plan. But don't stop there.

Love that IRA

Once you have maxed out, see if you can't squeeze out some more savings for an IRA.

Your best bet is to invest in a Roth IRA, because your investments grow tax-free and you can take the money out tax-free. But there are income restrictions.

There are two kinds of regular IRAs -- deductible and non-deductible. In both cases, your money grows tax-deferred. The added benefit to the deductible IRA is that your contributions are tax-deductible.

If you (and your spouse, if you're married filing jointly) aren't eligible for another retirement savings plan, you can contribute to a deductible IRA regardless of income. But if you are eligible for an employer-sponsored plan, you can lose part or all of your deduction based on your income.

A non-deductible IRA has no income restrictions.

Even if you can't max out on IRA contributions, sock away what you can -- and don't wait until the end of the year, says Lisa Osofsky, a tax adviser at M.R. Weiser & Co. in New York. "That way you get a head start -- set it aside early and you'll get the whole year of tax-deferred growth," she says.

"As long as you have the cash to invest, it'd be nuts not to get the most out of the breaks the government is handing you."

Karen Hube is a freelance writer living outside New York City.

Updated Jan. 4, 2008

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