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What You Can Do If Your 401(k) Has High Fees

Image courtesy of anankkml at

Image courtesy of anankkml at

Now that we’ve all been receiving 401(k) plan statements that include information about the fees associated with our accounts, what should you do with that information?  Some 401(k) plans have fees that are upwards of 2% annually, and these fees can introduce a tremendous drag on your investment returns over a long period of time.

There are two components to the overall cost of your 401(k) plan.  The first, and the easiest to find, is the internal expense ratios of the investments in the plan.  Recent information shows that, on average, these investment fees are something on the order of 1% to 1.4% or more.  The second part of the costs is the part that has recently begun to be disclosed: the plan-level fees.  These are the fees that the plan administrator has negotiated with the brokerage or third-party administrator to manage the plan.  These fees can average from 1% up to around 1.5%.  When added together, these fees can amount to nearly 3% for some smaller 401(k) plans.  Larger employers’ plan fees average about 1% less, at approximately 2% per year.

For example, if average investment returns are 8% you should be doubling your investments (on average) every 9 years.  However, if there is just a 1% fee deducted from the average investment return (so that now you’re only earning 7% annually) the doubling will take a bit more than 10 years.  A 2% fee brings you down to a 6% net average return, and so now your account won’t be doubled until 12 years has passed.  If you started our with $10,000 in your account, this would result in a differential of more than $42,000 over the course of 30 years – at 8% your account could grow to $100,627, while at a 6% return would only grow to $57,435.

The information about fees used to be kept pretty much secret, but beginning in 2012 the plan-level fees have begun to be disclosed to participants in the plans.  Now you know more about the overall fees that are charged to your plan and thereby reduce your overall investment returns.

What Can You Do?

So, now that you know what your expenses are in your 401(k) account, there are a few things that you might do to improve the situation.  While it’s unlikely that you can have an impact on the plan-level fees, you may be able to control some of your exposure to investment fees.  Listed below are a few things you can do to reduce your overall expenses in your 401(k) account.

  1. Lobby for lower fees.  Talk to your HR representatives and request that your plan has lower-cost options made available.  Index funds can be used within a 401(k) plan to produce the same kinds of investment results as the (often) high-cost managed mutual funds, with much lower expense ratios.
  2. Take in-service distributions, if available.  If your plan allows for distributions from the plan while you’re still employed, you can rollover some or all of your account to an IRA, and then choose lower-cost investment options at that time.  Typically a 401(k) plan may offer this option only to employees who are at least 59½ years of age – but not all plans offer in-service distributions.
  3. Balance the high-fee options with lower-cost options outside the plan.  If your 401(k) plan is unusually high-cost, if available do the bulk of your retirement investing in accounts outside the 401(k) plan, such as an IRA or Roth IRA, if you are eligible to make contributions.  Review the investment options in your 401(k) plan for the “diamonds in the rough” – such as certain institutional funds with very low expenses – that can be desirable to hold.  Then complete your allocations using the open marketplace of your IRA or Roth IRA account.

Don’t forget that there are sometimes very good reasons to leave your money in a 401(k) plan, even if the expenses are high.  See the article Not So Fast! 9 Special Considerations Before Rolling Over Your 401(k) for more information on why you wouldn’t want to make a move.

When Rolling Over a 401(k) to an IRA Isn’t a No-Brainer


Stibnite-121128 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oftentimes when folks are considering leaving employment, the decision to rollover 401(k) to an IRA is a no-brainer.  After all, why would you leave your retirement funds at the mercy of the constricted, expensive investment choices and other restrictions of your old company’s 401(k) administrator, when you can be free to invest in any (well, most any) investment you choose, keeping costs down, and completely within your own control in an IRA?

Well, for some folks this decision isn’t the straightforward choice that it seems to be, for the very important reason of access to the funds before reaching age 59½ (see this article for more info about The Post-55 Exception to the 10% Penalty for Withdrawals from 401(k)).  Since only within a 401(k) (or other employer-sponsored plans) can you take advantage of this early withdrawal exception, it might be in your best interests to think about your rollover choice before automatically rolling over into an IRA.  This is only important if you are under age 59½, of course – and much more important if you’re under age 55 when you leave your old employer.

Why it’s important

If you are under age 59½ and you have a sudden need for the funds that you’ve saved over the years in your old 401(k), and you’ve rolled over the funds into an IRA, you will have to pay a 10% penalty in addition to the ordinary income tax on your withdrawal, unless you meet one of the other exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty.

However, if you rollover the old 401(k) into another 401(k) (or 403(b), et al), you will preserve your opportunity to withdraw those funds if you leave employment at the job associated with the new 401(k) plan after you’ve reached age 55.

How can this work in your favor?

If you start work with another employer, as long as the new employer offers a 401(k) plan that accepts “roll-in” of 401(k) plan money and IRAs, you can rollover those old plans into the new plan, which will keep your options for access open should you need them upon leaving employment after age 55.

That’s not really under your control so much, is it? How about this: as you’re leaving employment at the old employers, if you have the opportunity to start your own business – such as consulting, or perhaps some part-time business – you can start your own Solo 401(k) plan and rollover the funds from your old plan(s) and IRAs if you have them.  Then, on the chance that you’d need the money later on after you’re at least age 55 (but not yet 59½), assuming that you can end your employment in your consultancy or other self-employment activity, you can then have access to those funds in your Solo 401(k) plan without penalty.

Some Cautions

If you go the self-employment route, you need to make sure that the business that you’ve created is valid and legitimate.  The IRS doesn’t at all take this lightly – if your business isn’t making money (or at least validly attempting to make money), your actions in creating a 401(k) plan and everything else associated with the business can be considered fraud.

This also applies to the dissolution of the business in order to have access to the retirement funds.  If it’s deemed that the only reason you did this was simply to have access, this action could be considered fraud as well.  This could come about if you dissolved the original business and then shortly afterward started a similar business again, for example.

The Downside

Of course, as with attempts to “work the system” in your favor, there are usually downsides to the matters.  In addition to the concerns about fraud mentioned before, there is the matter of control.  If you roll-in your funds from the old employer to another 401(k) plan and you remain employed with that new job past age 59½ you will give up access to those funds unless the new plan allows in-service distributions.

Say for example you left an old company at age 50 and started work with a new company, rolling over your money from old employer’s 401(k) plan to the new plan.  Then you work until age 65 at the new employer.  Unless the new employer’s 401(k) plan allows in-service distributions, you can’t get to the funds until you retire at age 65.  Had you left the money at the old employer (or rolled it over to an IRA) you would have had access to the money from the old plan free of penalty or restriction once you reached age 59½.

What do you think?  Do you see any other downsides to this type of plan?  How about other ways to use these rules to your advantage? I’d love to see your thoughts on the subject – leave a comment below.

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Did the Advent of 401(k) Plans Hurt Americans?

The 87-vehicle pile up on September 3, 1999

The 87-vehicle pile up on September 3, 1999 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been quite a bit of press lately about the recent Economic Policy Institute study (see this article “Rise of 401(k)s Hurt More Americans Than It Helped” for more), which indicates that the 401(k) plan itself is the cause of American’s lack of retirement resources.  I think it has more to do with the fact that the 401(k) plan (and other defined contribution plans) were expected to be a replacement for the old-style defined benefit pension plans, and the fact that those administering the retirement plans did little to ensure success for the employees.

Traditional defined benefit pension plans didn’t ask the employee to make a decision about how much to set aside – this was determined by actuaries.  Then the company made sure that the money was set aside (in most cases) so that the promised benefit would be there when the employee retires.  In the world of 401(k) plans, the employee has free choice to decide how much and whether or not to fund the retirement plan at all.  Human nature kicks in, and the nearer term needs of the employee win out over long term needs – of course the long-term requirements get short shrift!

It’s the same as when we turn over the car keys car to a 16-year-old.  Up to this point, the child has just ridden along, not having to know anything about rules of the road, car maintenance, or paying attention.  You wouldn’t just toss Johnny the keys and say “You know where you want to be. Do your best to get there!”  Of course you’re going to make sure that he has all the training necessary to operate the vehicle safely, and that he knows when to put fuel in the car, as well as that he knows how to navigate to his destination on time.

If the playing field had been level – that is, if when 401(k)-type plans were introduced as replacements for pension plans that there was no choice regarding participation and funding level, we’d see a much different picture.  I don’t think education alone is the answer, because the importance of continual funding is so difficult to comprehend.  Forced participation runs counter to the “American Way”, but that would have changed our outlook dramatically.

The problem isn’t the 401(k) plan itself – it’s that when companies dropped pension plans in favor of 401(k) plans they didn’t provide employees with the correct message about the importance of participation.  Free will is a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  But I think employers could have done much, much more to emphasize the importance of participation, of making long-term investment decisions, and of providing for your future with today’s earnings.

It wasn’t the account that is the problem, it’s in the implementation.

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Your Employer’s Retirement Plan

Backcountry Provisions

Whether you work as a doctor, teacher, office administrator, attorney, or government employee chances are you have access to your employer’s retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b), 457, SEP, or SIMPLE. These plans are a great resource to save money into, and some employers will even pay you to participate!

Let’s start with the 401(k). A 401(k) is a savings plan that is started by your employer to encourage both owners of the business and employees to save for retirement. Depending on how much you want to save, you can choose to have a specific dollar amount or percentage of your gross pay directed to your 401(k) account. Your money in your account can be invested tax-deferred in stock or bond mutual funds, company stock (if you work for a publicly traded company), or even a money market account. Your choice of funds will depend on the company that offers the 401(k) through your employer. Generally, you’re going to want to choose funds with low fees and expenses. As of 2013, the maximum amount you can put into your 401(k) is $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older. At age 59 ½ qualified withdrawals are now taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to penalties with some exceptions.

A cousin to the 401(k) is the 403(b). The 403(b) is very similar to the 401(k) in that you’re allowed to allocate a certain amount or percentage of your gross pay to your account, tax-deferred. Where the 403(b) differs is that it’s only allowed for non-profits such as school districts, hospitals, municipalities, and qualified charitable organizations. Another difference is by law the money in your 403(b) can only be invested in mutual funds or annuity contracts. You’re not allowed to own individual stocks or bonds in it. Like the 401(k), you’re allowed to save (as of 2013) $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older. At age 59 ½ qualified withdrawals are now taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to penalties with some exceptions.

Branching out in our retirement plan family tree we come to the 457 plan. 457 plans are reserved for certain non-profits such as hospitals, government entities, school districts and colleges and universities. As you may have guessed, 457 plans are similar to their 401(k) and 403(b) counterparts in that money from your gross pay goes into your account tax-deferred. Like the 403(b) the 457 only allows investments in mutual funds or annuity contracts.

Similar to the 401(k) and 403(b), you’re allowed to save up to $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older (for 2013). Unlike the 401(k) and 403(b) the 457 allows you access to your money at any age, as long as you’re separated from service from your employer. For example, if you were 40 years old and have been saving into a 457 since you were age 25 and you saved $50,000 and you were fired, laid off or resigned, you’d have access to your 457 money without penalty; you’d simply pay ordinary income tax on any withdrawals.

Another key point to make is in regards to the aggregation rule. What this means is that you’re only allowed to invest $17,500 (along with the “catch-up” if you qualify) total between a 401(k) and a 403(b). For example, you work as a professor for nine months of the year and save $14,000 in your college’s 403(b). Over the summer, you work part time for a company that offers a 401(k) plan and you want to save money there. Assuming you’re age 40, you’d only be able to save an additional $3,500 to your summer company’s 401(k) – for a total of $17,500.

There is one exception to the aggregation rule. If you have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) and a 457, you are allowed to contribute the maximum to the 401(k) or 403(b) – for a total of $17,500 and then contribute the maximum to the 457 for an annual total of $35,000. The 457 trumps the aggregation rule. Few people may be able to actually sock away $35,000 per year, but it is available to those that work for employers offering both plans or if you work for two or more employers and they offer one or the other.

SEPs and SIMPLEs work a bit different. Typically these plans are available to smaller employers and SEPs are common for those that are self-employed. Both SEPs and SIMPLEs use IRAs as the funding vehicle to place retirement money, but each has different requirements as to contribution limits and participation requirements.

SEPs (Simplified Employee Pensions) can be funded to a maximum of $51,000 annually (for 2013) or 25% of the employee’s salary – whichever is smaller. There can be corresponding tax deductions involved that may be beneficial for solo businesses or businesses with a small number of employees as there are requirements that all employees must participate.

SIMPLEs (Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees) are another option for smaller businesses looking to start a retirement plan and looking for a cost effective way to start (a 401(k) can be administratively expensive). Essentially, both employer and employees are allowed to participate and certain rules dictate that the employer must make a matching contribution (hence the Match in the name) to participating employees. As of 2013 you can contribute a maximum of $12,000 annually to a SIMPLE plan with an additional “catch-up” contribution of $2,500 if you’re age 50 or older.

The aggregation rule that applies to the 401(k) and 403(b) also applies to SEPs and SIMPLEs. This means that of the four plans for 2013, you’re still only allowed a total contribution of $17,500 annually ($23,000 if you’re age 50 or over). Having a 457 would be the only way to increase this amount.

Like SEPs and SIMPLEs, some 401(k) and 403(b) plans also have the company match. This means that in addition to your contributions, your employer will also make a contribution or “match” to the amount you’re contributing up to a certain percent. Consider taking full advantage of this. It’s free money! There are several reasons why an employer would do this ranging from plan compliance to helping ensure employee satisfaction and loyalty.

Finally, participating in your employer’s plan does not prohibit you from participating in a Traditional or Roth IRA. You are allowed to contribute the maximum allowed by law to both your employer’s plan and your own IRA.

It goes without saying that before you decide to participate, talk with your human resources department (not your cubicle buddy) or a financial professional regarding your options and which option or combination is right for you.

How Dollar-Cost-Averaging Can Work to Your Advantage for Your 401(k)

Average Afternoon on Highway 401

When you invest in your 401(k) plan with salary deferrals from each and every paycheck, you are taking part in a process known as Dollar-Cost-Averaging (DCA).  This process can be advantageous when investing periodically over a long span of time, by smoothing out the volatility of the market and giving you an average cost of your investment shares over time.

How does this work, and how can it be advantageous?


When deferring income with each paycheck, typically you will be investing in your 401(k) plan each pay period, whether monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly.  Each pay period the same amount is deferred and invested, no matter what the price of the underlying investments are at the time.  Since you’re always putting the same amount into the investment, when the price of the shares is higher, you purchase fewer shares; when the price is lower, you are purchasing more shares.

Note: DCA can be used with any type of investment account, including a 401(k), 403(b), IRA, or even a non-tax-deferred investment account.  We’ll refer to 401(k) accounts throughout the article since this is one of the more common accounts where DCA is employed.

For example, let’s say that you defer $100 every two weeks into your 401(k) plan, and your investment is an index fund.  For the first pay period the price of the fund is $10.  When you make your deferral and purchase this time, your $100 purchases 10 shares.

Then, in the next pay period the price of the shares of your index fund has increased to $10.50.  Now your $100 purchases 9.5238 shares, and you have a total of 19.5238 shares, at a price of $10.50 per share, for a total account value of $205.

On the following pay period the price of your index fund has fallen to $9.50 per share.  Your $100 deferred will purchase 10.5263 shares of the fund – you now have a total of 30.0501 shares at a price of $9.50, with a total account value of $285.48.

The table below plays out purchases with random amounts over a year and then tallies the result:

Pay Period Amount Deferred Price Per Share
Shares Purchased
Total Shares Total Value
1 $100 $10.55 9.4787 9.4787 $100.00
2 $100 $10.44 9.5785 19.0572 $198.96
3 $100 $9.92 10.0806 29.1378 $289.05
4 $100 $10.33 9.6805 38.8183 $400.99
5 $100 $11.95 8.3682 47.1865 $563.88
6 $100 $11.36 8.8028 55.9893 $636.04
7 $100 $9.14 10.9409 66.9302 $611.74
8 $100 $9.54 10.4822 77.4124 $738.51
9 $100 $11.67 8.569 85.9814 $1003.40
10 $100 $9.76 10.2459 96.2273 $939.18
11 $100 $10.46 9.5602 105.7875 $1106.54
12 $100 $9.62 10.395 116.1825 $1117.68
13 $100 $10.23 9.7752 125.9577 $1288.55
14 $100 $10.70 9.3458 135.3035 $1447.75
15 $100 $10.40 9.6154 144.9189 $1507.16
16 $100 $11.52 8.6806 153.5995 $1769.47
17 $100 $11.37 8.7951 162.3946 $1846.43
18 $100 $10.91 9.1659 171.5605 $1871.73
19 $100 $11.55 8.658 180.2185 $2081.52
20 $100 $10.37 9.6432 189.8617 $1968.87
21 $100 $10.19 9.8135 199.6752 $2034.69
22 $100 $9.98 10.02 209.6952 $2092.76
23 $100 $11.89 8.4104 218.1056 $2593.28
24 $100 $11.82 8.4602 226.5658 $2678.01
25 $100 $10.33 9.6805 236.2463 $2440.42
26 $100 $11.41 8.7642 245.0105 $2795.57

The table above was created by generating random prices between $9 and $11.99 over the 26 periods. In real life, your investment wouldn’t likely have such wildly-fluctuating values during the course of 26 pay periods – I used this degree of fluctuation to demonstrate the benefit of DCA when the investment is relatively volatile.

The Advantage

If, instead of investing $100 every two weeks you saved up the entire $2600 and invested it at the end of the 26th pay period, you would be purchasing all of the shares at $11.41, for a total of 227.8703 shares.  By DCA, your $2600 has increased in value such that you hold 245.0105 shares, with a value of $2795.57 – a net benefit of $195.57.

On the other hand, if you had $2600 to invest at the beginning of the table when the price was $10.55 per share, you would have purchased a total of 246.4455 shares, which would be worth a total of $2811.94 at the end of the 26 periods.

You can see from the table that by Dollar-Cost-Averaging, you achieve an average price per share over the period that is beneficial to you – since you’re purchasing exactly the same dollar amount of shares every time.  When the price is high, you buy fewer shares, and when the price is low you buy more shares.  By doing this over a long period of time, such as 30 years, you will avoid the risk associated with saving up a large sum of money and (perhaps) purchasing shares in an investment at a relatively high price by comparison over the savings period.

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Join in the Movement – Add 1% to Your Savings This Year!


Over the past several weeks we’ve been writing articles to encourage all Americans to add at least 1% more to savings in the coming year. More than 20 of my fellow bloggers have submitted articles, and these articles include many great ideas that you can apply in order to increase your savings rate in the coming year.

Since many employees are going through annual benefit elections right about now, it’s a very good time to increase your annual contributions to your retirement savings plans. Big changes are easiest to undertake with incremental steps – starting with adding 1% can have a great impact and get the momentum going!

Listed below are all of the articles that I’ve been notified about so far – 22 23 in all! These folks are very smart, and have shared some great ideas. You owe it to yourself to check it out, and then take action!  Add that 1% to your 401(k) or IRA!  If you’re a blogger, see the original post for details on how to join the action: Calling All Bloggers!

Listed below are the articles in our movement so far (newest are at the top):

A video tv segment from Laura Scharr: Preparing for Retirement

From Paula Hogan: 6 Ways to Add Another 1% of Income to Retirement Savings in 2013

From Kevin O’Reilly: From TwentySomething to Millionaire

From Tom Batterman: Take the 1% Challenge in 2013!!!

From Dana Anspach: Can You Spare A Penny?

From Steve Doster: The Easy Way to Become a Millionaire

From Nancy Anderson: Save 1% More for Retirement in 2013

From Kathy Stearns: Do the 1% in 2013!

From Ken Weingarten: The 1% Challenge (Should you dare to accept)

From Richard Feight: The 1% Challenge!

From John Hunter: Save What You Can, Increase Savings as You Can Do So

From Emily Guy Birken: Increase your savings rate by 1%

From Jonathan White: Ways to increase your retirement contributions 1% in 2013

From Alan Moore: Financial Challenge – Should You Choose To Accept It

From Ann Minnium: Gifts That Matter

From Laura Scharr: In Crisis: Personal Savings- Here Are Six Steps to Improve Your Retirement Security

From yours truly: Add Your First 1% to Your 401(k)

From Steve Stewart: Seriously. What’s 1 percent gonna do?

From Theresa Chen Wan: Saving for Retirement: The 1% Challenge for 2013

From Mike Piper: Investing Blog Roundup: Saving 1% More

From Robert Wasilewski: Increase Savings Rate By 1%

From Sterling Raskie: A Nifty Little Trick to Increase Savings

From Roger Wohlner: Need Post-Election Financial Advice? Try the 1% Solution

From Michele Clark: Employer Retirement Accounts: 2013 Contribution Limits

Thanks to all who have participated so far – and keep those links coming!

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