401k Plans and My Contribution

by David Ning · 10 comments

We received my wife’s 401k plans statement yesterday and we felt like financial geniuses. Splashed on the first page of the statement was our mutual fund performances, up 28.14% in the quarter and 18.43% year to date. My instant reaction was of joy, but it quickly faded as questions were bubbling in my head. Did the performance numbers always showed up in huge font on the first page? Am I supposed to be happy even though our 401k balances are still down from year ago levels?

As I snapped back into reality, I remembered that all companies offering 401k plans are just sales organizations. When times are good, they emphasis how great your investments are. When times are bad, they hide their tracks by telling you how others are doing just as bad.

In addition, 401k plans:

  • Offer funds that almost always have higher fees – Look in your fund selection and chances are good that your average expense ratio is more than 1%. That’s 1% in fees taken off every single year, whether your fund increases in value or not.
  • Always seem to have great performing funds even if they underperform – The 401k plan companies call it “monitoring to give you the best funds” when it’s actually their tactic to always keep more “advertisable” funds in front of customers. How could your money grow if they always make you switch to a better performing fund based on past history (buy high), and take the underperforming fund off the selection list (sell low)?
  • Have Very Limited Selection – I was actually told that having a limited selection is a good thing because it’s confusing to have too many choices. I agree completely, but it makes no sense to have choices that just suck.

Why have your funds in there unless you have to? Every time you have a chance to roll over your 401k balances into a IRA (for example, a job change), do so. Don’t ever roll them over to your new company’s 401k. It may seem like an easier way to go, but trust me, you are really losing out because of the high fees.

401k Plans Aren’t All Bad

With that said, you may wonder why we even contribute to a company sponsored 401k plan. Don’t worry, we aren’t crazy. We do it because my wife’s company offer a match, and we never say no to free money. Having money taken out of our paycheck before we ever get to see it also has an amazing (almost magical) effect. Without ever having access to it, we don’t seem to need it and after a while, money seems to accumulate without effort.

My Thoughts on How to Deal with 401k Plans

How much to contribute is a question I get asked constantly, and here’s what I usually recommend.

  1. Contribute your 401k to Get the Maximum Benefit of the Employer Match
  2. Then, Max Out Your Roth IRA (pre-tax and post-tax debate aside, it’s better than your 401k as long as you pick a broker that gives you maximum investment flexibility)
  3. Finally, the rest can go in your savings/taxable investments

If you are a high wage earner, you should contribute a bit more to your 401k plan in order to beef up your retirement savings percentage. Also, some of you may go over the limit that excludes you from taking advantage of the Roth IRA. Hence, more 401k contributions needed.

Many of you may feel that you are giving away too much taxes to Uncle Sam with my approach, but by having more money in your savings and taxable investments, you can actually use it to meet your short to medium term goals. Some of them include:

  • Saving for Your Home
  • Having a Rainy Day Fund
  • Paying Cash for a Car
  • Buying the Little Budget Travel Book so You can Go on Vacation For Less (Seriously, how can buying my book not be your short term goal?..?)
  • Saving for a Big Occasion Like a Baby, Wedding, Etc

Not putting away as much as you can in your retirement accounts may defy conventional wisdom, but whether it’s now or in your retirement, you need to live a little too.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

ObliviousInvestor July 23, 2009 at 7:52 am

“I was actually told that having a limited selection is a good thing because it’s confusing to have too many choices. I agree completely, but it makes no sense to have choices that just suck.”

Hah. Well said.

As to 401k admin fees, Morningstar and Deloitte performed a study in the last year that found the median administrative fee on employer-sponsored retirement accounts to be 0.72% of assets. That, together with high-cost funds, *really* adds up over the course of a career.

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MoneyNing July 23, 2009 at 8:39 am

0.72% of assets. Wow. I knew that when someone pitched to take over our 401k accounts in my old company, they said that they tack on 0.30%. I thought that was already crazy.

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ObliviousInvestor July 29, 2009 at 5:58 am

Correction: The study was by the Investment Company Institute and Deloitte (Morningstar was not involved).

The link to the pdf is here: http://www.ici.org/pdf/rpt_09_dc_401k_fee_study.pdf :)

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Adam July 23, 2009 at 8:57 am

One day, we will cut out the middle man and be able to invest without excessive fees. The government already provides the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for some, so why not allow everyone to enroll?

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marci July 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I’m in the 401K for exactly the reason you mentioned – matched funds by the employer… So I contribute up to the maximum he will match. Easy way to double your money temporarily….(minus commissions and whatever the market does bad)

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Denis July 23, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I have a 403b and I’m very fortunate to have Vanguard which offers a great variety of funds with low % fees. Also, they waive minimums (usually 3k).

I contribute just 8% of my salary to it with no match (but in addition we do get a 9% of salary pension plan, paid by employer). Not to shabby, now I see why many people are still working there 10-15 years later.

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Jerry July 24, 2009 at 3:12 am

@Denis, we also have Vanguard and have been really happy with them. I think contributing as much to your 401K is your only insurance from having to work an extra 10-15 years. Well, not unless you want to…Many people are scared of retirement. I don’t happen to be one of them;) I think the extra free time will lead me to places abroad and adventures I haven’t yet been able to take.
Jerry

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Denis July 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm

@Jerry: I agree, I definitely am not afraid of retirement …unless if I’m living in the US when I’m retired. My goal is to move to where I was born, Nicaragua, and to have a very good lifestyle there. A dollar there goes a lot farther than here and because a lot of my family is still there, it’d be a nice transition.

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Avery July 25, 2009 at 2:20 am

we do not have 401k plan.

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Meaghan July 29, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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