Your 401(k) Stinks, and Here’s What to Do About It

We at The Motley Fool have always been champions of the individual investor, encouraging each person to take control of her or his financial destiny. In theory, the transition of America’s retirement apparatus from defined-benefit plans — i.e., pensions that pay a monthly amount — to defined-contribution plans — such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s — is consistent with this Foolish philosophy. The individual makes all the contribution, investment, distribution, and inheritance decisions, whereas with a defined-benefit pension, the worker has very little control.

However, for the majority of Americans, the transition away from defined-benefit has not been to their benefit. It requires each person to become an investing expert and financial planner in their spare time, and too many Americans don’t seem to have the time, interest, inclination, or skills.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the average 401(k) account is a tad over $60,000; those within a decade of retirement have a bit more, with an average balance of $78,000, but more than a third have less than $25,000. Almost half of workers (43%) between the ages of 45 and 54 reported they weren’t saving anything for retirement.

Not that traditional defined-benefit pensions don’t have their own problems. Many are underfunded, and the benefits accrue mostly to workers who stay with the same employer for many years, which is less common in today’s mobile workplace. But it’s clear that 401(k)-based retirement planning will result in not much of a retirement for many workers.

We can chalk a good deal of this up to people not taking responsibility for their finances, but the problem also lies with the 401(k) system itself. Employees are stuck with the plan and the investments that have been chosen by the employer and/or HR department (who may be fine people, but not necessarily investment experts). Too often, the fund choices are mediocre or worse, and the costs are high.

Get Ready to Look Under the Hood
Unfortunately, you likely don’t know the true costs of your 401(k). They’re hidden in boring legal filings or embedded in the expense ratios of the mutual funds within the plan. But that’s all about to change.

Beginning later this year, 401(k) plans will be required to disclose how much the administration of the plan and the investments is costing participants. This is important information, since — according to human resources consultant Towers Watson — an increase of 0.5% of expenses (i.e., $50 for every $10,000 invested) could consume eight years’ worth of savings for an above-average earner. After all, the $30 billion to $60 billion the financial-services industry makes from 401(k)s each year doesn’t grow on trees; it’s usually taken directly from investors’ accounts.

The amount of fees being extracted from 401(k) accounts may be shocking to some investors. Indeed, many might be surprised they’re paying fees at all, if an AARP survey is to be believed, which found that 70% of worker didn’t know they were paying fees. Alas, that is just not the case.

With the new disclosures, it will be easier to see what you’re paying, and whether that’s too much.

Generally, smaller plans pay higher costs — “smaller” meaning both the number of plan participants as well as total assets in the plan. According to a study [PDF] conducted by Deloitte for the Investment Company Institute (a trade organization for the mutual fund industry, so not necessarily an unbiased crew), the median all-in cost — which includes administrative costs as well as investment expenses — to plan participants in 2011 was 0.78%. But the numbers vary widely, with plan size being the primary factor.

The median cost for a plan with more than $1 billion in assets was 0.38%, whereas the median cost for a plan with less than $1 million was 1.41%. Similarly (and relatedly), the median cost for a plan with fewer than 100 participants was 1.29%, compared to 0.43% for those with more than 10,000 participants.

You can use those figures as a benchmark to determine where your fees fall in relation to other plans. Then, figure out who’s paying those fees — you or your employer. Chances are, it’s the person you see in the mirror (unless your boss follows you into the bathroom, which is kinda weird). According to the Deloitte study:

[P]articipants bear the majority of 401(k) expenses. Similar to any other employee benefit (e.g., health insurance), the employer determines whether the employee, employer, or both will pay for the benefit. According to the Survey, on average, participants pay 91% of total plan fees while employers pay 5% and the plans cover 4%. This compares with participants paying 78%, employers paying 18% and plans paying 4% in the 2009 Fee Study.

In other words, employees are paying the majority of fees, and the share that they’re paying is going up.

Are you getting your money’s worth from your 401(k)? Here’s how to find out, and what to do about it:

  • Evaluate your investment choices. See if the funds in your plan, over the past five years, have beaten a relevant index fund as well as the majority of other funds with a similar investing objective. This information may be found in your quarterly statements or on the website of your plan provider. Important note: Your funds’ mileage may vary from the information on Morningstar or other fund-info sites since funds in 401(k)s often have additional costs.
  • Use the side brokerage account, if offered. Approximately 20% of 401(k)s allow participants to open an account with a discount brokerage within the plan. This will let you buy individual stocks, bonds, ETFs, and other mutual funds. However, compare the benefits to the costs, since these accounts often have higher maintenance fees.
  • Advocate for a better plan. Talk to the folks in your HR department and raise your concerns. After all, their retirement is on the line, too, and they should also be motivated to have the best possible plan. Here’s an example of a letter you can write to ask for a better plan.
  • Don’t ignore other accounts. If your 401(k) is stin(k)y, contribute just enough to take full advantage of the employer match, and then max out an IRA with the discount brokerage of your choice. You might pay lower costs and have more investment options. However, if you are in a higher tax bracket — and thus ineligible for the Roth IRA, and your contributions to a traditional IRA wouldn’t be deductible — then it might make sense to invest in non-dividend-paying stocks you’ll hold for many, many years. You don’t get a tax break up front, but you’ll pay long-term capital gains when you do sell, which (at least according to current laws) are lower than the taxation rate on ordinary income (the rate at which your paycheck and traditional 401(k) and IRA distributions are taxed).
  • Move your money. You generally can’t transfer the money in your 401(k) to another account while you’re still working for the employer sponsoring the plan, but some companies allow it, especially for older workers. If your plan is sub-par, ask if your employer allows “in-service distributions.” If so, or once you leave that employer, transfer the money to an IRA. But do not just get a check and cash it; that is considered a distribution, which will be subject to taxes and a 10% penalty if you’re not 59 ½ years old. Instead, get the money to an IRA, ideally through a “trustee-to-trustee transfer,” in which the money is sent directly from your 401(k) to the IRA.
  • Get help. If you’re looking for professional advice with your investment choices, look for a fee-only planner who charges by the hour, such as the Certified Financial Planners at the Garrett Planning Network or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. She or he can also estimate whether you’re saving enough to retire when and how you want.

Hug Your Boss, Then Make the Request
Employers deserve credit for sponsoring retirement plans. They don’t have to do it, it consumes the HR department’s time, and it might even cost them actual money. I’m on the 401(k) committee of The Motley Fool (where the company covers all administrative costs, thank you very much), and I can tell you that it’s more work than most people would think.

But don’t be bashful about politely asking for a better plan. No one is planning your retirement for you, and no one cares more about your retirement more than you do. The more your retirement will rely on your own contribution and investment decisions, the more you must take charge.

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