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Is a 401k Considered an Asset?


Your 401(k), and any other retirement accounts, are financial assets. These are portfolios in which you hold securities and investment products that have either realized or potential value. This makes your 401(k) portfolio an asset in your name as long as you own the account and as long as it has a positive balance. Here’s how it works.

It always makes sense to consult with a financial advisor as you work on a retirement plan.

What Is An Asset?

From time to time, life events will require you to take an accounting of your assets. This can range from exciting events, like buying a home or getting married, to unpleasant ones, like writing your will or getting divorced. When that happens, it’s important to understand what qualifies as an “asset.”

For individuals, a financial asset is anything you own that has positive financial value. This includes cash and financial portfolios, like stocks and mutual funds. It also includes tangible products like a home, a car and anything else you could sell for money.

This includes anything that can provide ongoing value, such as rental properties and dividend stocks. You don’t have to actually sell something or collect income for it to be considered an asset, simply the possibility qualifies. Essentially, if something does or could make you wealthier, it’s considered an asset.

What Are Liabilities?

Is a 401k considered an asset?

The counterpart to assets is liabilities. A liability is anything that makes you poorer. Debts are liabilities. So is there anything where you owe more money on the product than it’s worth? For example, your credit card bill is a liability. A home on which you owe more money than the house is worth is also a liability.

Losing money on a sale doesn’t turn something from an asset to a liability. The difference is if you owe money. For example, say you own a stock portfolio that has declined in value. You can still sell those stocks and collect money, making them an asset even if you took a loss relative to the purchase price.

On the other hand, let’s say that you short-sold a bundle of stocks that have skyrocketed in value. You may owe money on those short positions, making them a liability.

What Is a 401(k)?

A 401(k) is a retirement account set up by an employer on behalf of their employees. Although maintained by your employer, your 401(k) belongs to you as an individual. This allows you to make choices about the account’s assets, take loans and early withdrawals, roll it over to a Roth IRA, and move it from one workplace to another.

Any given 401(k) will hold a mix of securities such as stocks, bonds, funds and even cash. The composition of a specific account will be based on your employer’s plan and your personal choices.

These accounts make up a huge portion of Americans’ net worth. Most estimates suggest that retirement accounts are the second-largest portion of household net worth in America, only after home equity. Given that home equity is highly illiquid and assumes that you can sell your home without needing to invest in a new place to live, retirement assets arguably make up the single largest portion of spendable household net worth in America.

Is a 401(k) an Asset?

There are two ways of measuring assets. As noted above, the formal definition means literally anything of potential or realized financial value. Anything that is either cash or something that could be converted to a positive sum of cash, meaning it’s worth more than you owe on it, is an asset.

That definition applies to almost anything great and small, from your home to your bed to your streaming catalog. This is the kind of account you will use when doing your taxes or getting divorced. As a general rule, when calculating formal assets, you will not include anything under $25 in value as this is considered a de minimis amount.

The practical definition of an asset means anything that you can and likely would convert into financial value. This means anything that has real, monetary value and is a thing that you might reasonably sell and someone might reasonably buy. Under this definition, you wouldn’t include some used paperbacks or a TV remote in your list of assets. Those might have some nominal value, but short of a yard sale they’re not going to be converted into cash.

Under either definition, however, your 401(k) is an asset. Or, perhaps more accurately put, it is a portfolio of accumulated assets.

Bottom Line

Is a 401k considered an asset?

Your 401(k) is an investment account that holds securities and cash. Any securities in this portfolio are by definition assets because, unless they are something like an underwater short position, they can be converted to a positive sum of money. Cash that you own is always an asset. So overall, anything that has positive financial value is considered an asset. As long as your 401(k) has more value than debt in its portfolio, it is an asset.

Retirement Tips

  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you want to set up and plan your retirement goals, SmartAsset’s retirement calculator can help you figure out how much you will need to save to retire comfortably.

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