Ask yourself these questions if you’re not sure what to do with your old workplace retirement plan

Young male employee sitting at his desk looking at his phone reviewing his benefits

If you’re among the more than 4 million Americans per month voluntarily leaving their jobs, there’s no shortage of tasks you’ll need to take care of as you start your new role, from updating your LinkedIn profile to filling out tax forms with your new employer. Here’s one more important task to put on your to-do list: Decide what to you with your old workplace retirement plan.

If you contribute to a workplace retirement, once you leave your job, you will no longer be able to contribute to that account. In most cases, you have three options for the funds that it holds:

  • Leave it in your account with your former employer
  • Roll it over into an individual retirement account (IRA) or your new workplace retirement plan
  • Cash it out

In most cases, the first two options are your best bet, since there are significant financial consequences for cashing out. One note: No matter which route you choose, you’ll want to sign up for the retirement plan at your new job as soon as you’re eligible, and contribute at least enough to get the employer match, with the goal of increasing contributions until you’re saving 10% to 15% of your income.

Still not sure what to do with the funds in the old account? Ask yourself these questions to decide whether it makes sense to leave your retirement funds with your former employer or move them. 

What is your balance?

If you have less than $1,000 in the account, your old plan may automatically liquidate it and send you a check. If it’s $1,000 to $5,000, they may automatically roll it over into an IRA. From there, you can decide how to invest those funds within the IRA, or to complete another rollover into your new workplace retirement account.

What are the fees/options available in the new plan?

If you like the investment options in your new workplace retirement plan, and it offers lower fees than those in your former plan, then rolling over to the new plan is a no-brainer. However, if the old plan has lower fees and better options, it may make sense to leave your funds there.

In most cases, you’ll find lower fees in workplace retirement plans than in IRAs, since those plans are able to access institutional shares. A study by Pew found that annual expenses for median retail shares of equity funds were about 37% higher in IRAs than in workplace retirement plans and 56% higher for bond funds.

How good are you at tracking multiple accounts?

Keeping money with multiple providers can be costly, since you may be paying multiple fees to different providers. It can also be time-consuming, and there’s a chance you can forget about or lose access to your account entirely. The fintech firm Capitalize estimated that there are more than 24 million forgotten 401(k)s, or inactive accounts, in the United States.

If you think it’s likely that you’ll forget about your old workplace retirement plan or that managing multiple accounts will feel stressful to you, rolling all the funds into your current workplace retirement account may be a good option.

Do you want to invest in individual stocks or alternative investments?

The typically 401(k) plan allows investors to select from about 10 funds, according to the Financial Institute FINRA. Other retirement accounts such as 403(b)s and 457 plans have similarly limited options. However, you can access thousands of different securities via an IRA opened through a brokerage. If you’re interested in niche investments, or in building a retirement portfolio (either on your own or with the help of a financial professional) that contains a specific stock or type of asset, an IRA will allow you to do so.

Are you planning to work past age 73?

Starting in 2023, once you reach age 73, the IRS requires you to start taking required minimum distribution (RMDs) from IRAs and workplace retirement plans at places where you’re no longer employed. But, if you’re still working at age 73, you do not need to take withdrawals from your current employer’s plan. So, if you want to give your retirement assets more time to grow tax-free, you may want to roll them into your current plan.

You’ve worked hard to build up your retirement account, so it's important to make sure when you leave a job that you're setting yourself up to continue making progress toward your future financial security. If you're not sure the best move for your situation, a financial professional can help. 


This material is provided for general and educational purposes only; it is not intended to provide legal, tax or investment advice. All investments are subject to risk. Please consult an independent legal or financial advisor for specific advice about your individual situation.