Trillion-Dollar Treasure Trove

Few people are lazier than I am. I even wrote a mini how-to guide for those like me who would prefer to sit and stare at a blank wall rather than balance their checkbooks.

But there's one ho-hum money task that I'm all over: taking the money in my old 401(k) plan with me.

Years ago, when I left my former employer to join The Motley Fool, moving my 401(k) money into a self-directed IRA was high on my "to do" list -- even higher than "find apartment," "hire movers," "plan going-away bash," "give notice," and "call mom."

Why such urgency? The investment choices in my company's 401(k) plan stank, and the fees -- which took some time to decipher -- were even more rank. A little-known fact about 401(k) plans is that, like every other financial service, the provider charges administrative fees. These costs used to be assumed by employers. But more and more, the expenses are being shifted to plan participants -- whether they still work there or not.

I liked my former co-workers a lot. But I wasn't going to continue to pick up the tab.

So I filled out the paperwork and moved the money tout de suite into a discount brokerage account. It was one of the first important lessons that I learned from my soon-to-be employer: I was better off taking money matters into my own hands.

Take the money and run
Have you got a few old retirement plans rattling around? I'd be surprised if you didn't.

According to the Department of Labor, Americans move to a new employer once every four years, leaving a trail of old 401(k) and 403(b) plans that total in the trillions of dollars. If you have money sitting in a former employer's retirement plan, it's time to take control and move your money into a self-directed IRA, completing the process that the financial services industry has dubbed the "rollover." Doing so will give you more investment options at a lower cost.

As Fool David Braze explains, there are two ways to take the money with you: via "rollover" or direct transfer. Both are easy to execute (here's one page that'll walk you through the process), but the direct transfer method helps you avoid any costly tax snafus.

It may make you queasy to suddenly find yourself in control of tens of thousands of dollars, but keep cool. Arranging a rollover or direct transfer is even easier than opening a bank account. Your old employer's human resources person will put you in contact with the 401(k) plan custodian. Simply tell him or her what you want to do, and follow the instructions they provide. As David points out in his column, be sure that any check issued by the plan is not made out in a way that allows you to cash it. As long as it isn't, you will have no problems with income taxes.

Before you do this, you'll have to decide where to put your newfound riches. ("In my checking account" is not an acceptable answer, you comedian you.)

So, exactly who will get the honor of housing your money?

Your dollars welcome here!
Brokers are waiting with open arms. They're jockeying for prime position to capitalize on the next big wave of assets -- the 401(k) rollover market.

"Mountains of money are moving in the next decade," according to a Financial Research Corporation study on the rollover market. Mountains, indeed: Consumers will take out more than $3.7 trillion from qualified retirement plans by 2006, according to the study, titled "Money on the Move: Strategies for Capturing Retirement Rollovers." More than half of that -- $2 trillion -- will be funneled into IRAs.

This massive migration of money is a fairly recent -- and welcome -- phenomenon, at least for financial services companies. With the average 401(k) balance at $50,000, companies such as Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab (NYSE: SCH  ) , Vanguard, and Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) stand to gain a healthy influx of retirement assets. By capturing just 0.75% of the projected rollover dollars, a company could add about $13 billion of new assets to its business over five years.

To get in on the action, retirement market behemoths are gunning for your retirement dollars, if you haven't already noticed the prime-time run of rollover commercials. They've even made it easier for lazy Fools like me to make the move -- one phone call (or click), a single document, and, finito!

But a little due diligence is probably wise. In general, you want to make sure the bulk of your contribution is going toward your retirement nest egg, not to the broker. You can get into the nitty-gritty of what each discount brokerage firm offers, including customer service and one-time freebies. Or you can take a shortcut and hone in on two particular things: Fees and trading commissions.

By law, your broker can charge an annual fee to maintain your IRA (aptly named, "IRA maintenance fee"), but many don't. Then there are fees for account inactivity and transferring your money out of the account. Trading commissions can also erode your returns. (We put our sponsor-brokers to the fee test with a side-by-side comparison. You'll see that Ameritrade (Nasdaq: AMTD  ) charges no IRA maintenance fee. Though it does have a $1,000 minimum to open an account, while HarrisDirect and ShareBuilder charge maintenance fees but have no minimum dollar requirement on accounts.)

Once you've chosen your broker and decided whether to conduct a rollover or direct transfer of your assets, there's just one more consideration: To merge with an existing IRA or not to merge.

If you transfer your money into a separate and distinct IRA of its own, you leave open the option to transfer those funds in the future to the new employer's 401(k) plan (if your new boss accepts rollover money from an old employer's plan). If you mix your 401(k) money with IRA money that did not come from an old employer's qualified retirement plan, that money forevermore loses its eligibility for a future transfer to a new employer's plan.

I merged. (Call me lazy.) I figured that seeing a fresh 401(k) with a balance of $0 at my new employer would give me more incentive to sock money away with each paycheck.

Really, it is that easy
Not all of my fellow Fools have gotten religion on the rollover issue. Paul, one of our editors, revealed to me that he had more than five years' worth of diligent retirement savings in two 401(k)s still sitting with former employers.

After a little browbeating, he finally took control of one account and transferred the money into his Schwab discount brokerage account. As he said, one phone call and done.

Still, he's dragging his feet on yet another dusty old 401(k) at an employer he left more than two years ago. In fact, in the time it took him to edit this column, he could have made the phone call, downloaded the necessary documents, and gotten the ball rolling.

We'll find out if public admonishment inspires him to finish the job.

Dayana Yochim's hard-earned dollars that she rolled over into an IRA are still working hard for her in an index mutual fund. The Fool is not willing to roll over on our disclosure policy.


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