Roll your 401(k) into a new plan

Rubber band around rolled-up money

If you've recently been laid off or started a new job, chances are you've got a lot on your mind, from filing for unemployment to learning a new set of ropes.

But there's something else to consider -- your 401(k).

It's easy to just leave your 401(k) where it is. A recent study found that nearly half of those accounts remained with former employers a year after workers left their jobs.

There are, however, some good reasons to move that money.

You may want to roll your retirement savings into your new employer's 401(k) plan, especially if your new employer matches employee contributions. You'll make more than just saving on your own.

If you're having a hard time finding a job, or your new employer doesn't offer a 401(k) plan, rolling your existing account into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) can make a lot of sense, too.

If you have the choice between an employer plan and an IRA, how do you know which is right for you? Ask yourself these questions:

When do I want to retire? You can start making regular withdrawals from a 401(k) earlier than an IRA without incurring a penalty. You need to be 59½ to start drawing down your IRA, but you're allowed to access your 401(k) savings if you leave your job at 55.

Will I need emergency access to my savings? You can make penalty-free withdrawals from IRAs for several reasons, including medical bills that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income or to pay college expenses for you, your spouse, children or grandchildren.

How much do I plan to contribute? In 2010 and 2011, the cap for what you can contribute to your 401(k) is $16,500, or $22,000 if you're age 50 or older. IRAs allow you to contribute $5,000; if you're over 50, you're allowed to contribute $6,000. So if you're in a position to stash a substantial sum away for your retirement, that argues for a 401(k).

What kind of investments do I want to make? IRAs typically offer more investment options, including mutual funds, stocks, bonds and certificates of deposit. 401(k) plans usually have a more limited number of options. If you're not comfortable with the choices your employer offers, that argues for an IRA.

If you choose to roll your 401(k) from your previous employer into a 401(k) plan at your new job, your current employer will provide you with the appropriate forms and help you with the transition.

Similarly, rolling your 401(k) into an IRA is fairly simple. Here's what you have to do:

Decide where to put your retirement savings. Banks, mutual fund companies such as Fidelity Investments and stockbrokers such as E-Trade or Charles Schwab can manage your IRA.

You need a partner that offers the investment choices you want with the lowest possible fees. According to David Loeper, author of Stop the Retirement Rip-off: How to Avoid Hidden Fees and Keep More of Your Money, anything over 0.75% of the IRA's value a year is too much.

Choose a traditional IRA. You can roll your savings from a 401(k) plan into a traditional IRA without paying taxes now.

If you opt for a Roth IRA, you'll have to pay income taxes on all of your savings at your current tax rate, because contributions to a 401(k) (and traditional IRAs) are made with pretax income, while contributions to Roth IRAs are from after-tax income.

Because most of us fall into a lower tax bracket after we retire, it's better to pay taxes when you withdraw money than while you're working.

Do a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer. You don't want your former employer to write you a check for the balance in your 401(k) account.

That's considered an early withdrawal, and you'll have to pay taxes and penalties on every cent. Just sign forms authorizing the bank or investment firm you choose to accept the funds on your behalf.

Follow on Twitter.