Employers now offer student loan 401(k) match: What it’s like

When Amber Steeves started working at Verizon almost 15 years ago, she did one of the best things you can do when you start a new job. She enrolled in the company’s 401(k) program to begin saving for retirement.

“I was never financially stable, and that was a goal,” she tells CNBC Make It. “OK, now I’m working, I need to be smart about my money,” she recalls telling herself.

Steeves started at Verizon right after college. Around the same time, she also started making monthly payments on her student debt, which was less than $15,000 when she graduated. Though she balances her debt payments and retirement savings well now, it wasn’t easy at first, she says.

“I was working paycheck to paycheck after graduating school and hitting the job market during the 2009 recession,” Steeves says. “A few times on and off for about six years, I had to ask for options such as lowering my monthly payments or a temporary forbearance due to unexpected life and financial circumstances.”

Verizon offers employees a 6% match on retirement contributions, which Steeves says she has been taking full advantage of “since day one.” But now Steeves, who works as an accommodations team member at the company, has the opportunity to get even more out of her employee benefits. 

This past December, Verizon announced it would begin offering 401(k) matching for student loan payments.

“It felt like April Fool’s, I did not believe it,” she says. The company, like many others, had a tuition assistance program in place, but Steeves says she often joked with colleagues or friends at other companies about their employers offering a benefit for educational debt. 

“[It] still kind of doesn’t feel real, even though I’ve signed up for it, I have it ready,” she says. “I really can’t put it into words because I’ve never heard of a company offering this type of benefit before.”

Getting the most out of her benefits

Verizon employees are eligible to enroll in the company’s Secure Your Future plan as early as their first day. The plan allows employees to earn the full 6% employer 401(k) contribution by making student loan payments, making their own 401(k) contributions or a combination of the two.

That means an employee could put 3% of their salary toward student loans and 3% toward their 401(k) and receive a 6% 401(k) contribution from Verizon. Alternatively, an employee could put a full 6% of their salary toward their loans and still receive a 6% employer contribution to their retirement savings.

Enrollment was easy, Steeves says, and she’s using another employee benefit, financial coaching, to ensure she’s making the best decisions to meet her long-term goals.

She currently contributes more than 6% of her salary to her 401(k), but hasn’t made a final decision on how much she’s going to allocate to her debt and her 401(k) moving forward. She’s leaning toward prioritizing her debt for a while to pay off her loans.

“I think this is the first time I felt good in 15 years since graduating when it comes to focus and a plan to repay these loans,” she says.

Steeves hopes the Secure Your Future program will help her meet her goal of paying off her student loans in the next five years. Both the program itself and the platform she uses to navigate it have been helpful, she says, because it’s helped her visualize and organize what she needs to do to meet her goals.

“I feel more confident now,” she says. “I feel much clearer.”

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