The great thing about a 401k is that you are contributing with pre-tax money. The higher the tax bracket you are in, the more tax savings you will have. If you can start withdrawing from your 401k when you’re in a lower income tax bracket, then you’ve successfully conducted some tax engineering to boost your wealth.
The problem with the 401k is the 10% early withdrawal penalty before age 59.5. If the government gets desperate, they can raise the early withdrawal penalty percentage or increase the age limit. I ascribe a 75% chance one of these two things will occur over the next 30 years.
It’s easy to understand why saving for retirement is difficult. The value proposition is that you put your money away in an institution like Fidelity, which operates under the confines of the omnipotent government, who punishes you if you err from their rules, all for the chance that your money will grow decades down the road.
With no assurances from your money manager or the government that your money will be there in retirement, spending money now on instant gratification makes perfect sense. Give me the latest iPhone vs. the potential to have $25,000 more in retirement! Therein lies the dilemma of the 401k contributor who can’t max out his or her account every year, and who therefore doesn’t have excessive after tax savings for liquidity and other purchases.