When I started my first job out of college, it didn’t pay a lot of money.  I kept expenses low by splitting an apartment, driving my five year old car, and generally living the cheap, bachelor lifestyle.  As such, I was still able to contribute a few bucks to my 401(k) plan.

When I say ‘a few bucks’, I literally mean a few bucks.

Not only was retirement the last thing on my mind, but I wasn’t making enough to really be able to contribute a great deal.  The little bit I did contribute grew to a couple of hundred dollars.

I stayed at that first job for almost two years, at which point I realized it was time to start making more money.  So, I took a job that offered an almost 50% increase.

After a few months, I got a check in the mail from my old employer.  I guess I had received a letter or two telling me that I could roll my 401(k) over into my new employers plan or an IRA, but I didn’t do anything about it, so they sent me a check.

I had already started contributing to my new employer’s 401(k) plan, and it was actually a decent amount given the raise.  But, at the end of the year, the person that does our families taxes called and asked what had happened to the balance of the original 401(k).  I told him I had just taken the money, but that it wasn’t a big deal because it was only a couple of hundred dollars.

He wrote me back advising that I never do that again.  The lesson became clear when I read that it wasn’t so much the amount, it was the practice.

By taking the cash, I potentially established a precedent in my mind of saying two things:

  1. That a small amount of money is OK to take off the table when it comes to retirement planning
  2. Saving for retirement can wait until later.

The problem, as it became clearer to me in the subsequent years was as follows:

  1. The definition of ‘a small amount of money’ will change over time.  When I left that first job for the higher paying job, I got a 50% bump in salary and I thought I was flying high.  Yet, that amount is still less than half of what I make today.  At any point, the salary and what we define as ‘a lot of money’ will change. Thus, in the end, the balance in our retirement fund doesn’t really matter.
  2. The earlier the better when it comes to saving for retirement.  I don’t feel that much different as a person than I did when I made that choice, yet fifteen years had passed.  If I had continued to kick the can down the line, I would always be promising myself to save later, but who knows when that would have started?

I learned my lesson and I’ve never failed to roll over my 401(k) since, even though it’s transferred nearly half a dozen times.

As a young 23 year old, I couldn’t understand what was ‘the big deal’ about a couple of hundred dollar retirement account.

As a 37 year old, I can now say:

I get it.