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Don't Make These 6 Big 401(k) Blunders

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Social Security's not working. Pensions are practically extinct. Now 401(k)s are in jeopardy -- and it's up to us to save our retirement. Our special report shows you how.

The 401(k) may be the premier retirement plan available to employees nationwide today, replacing the pension as the first and foremost lifeline to happy golden years. But just because it's a popular retirement tool doesn't mean it's devoid of pitfalls.

In fact, many would-be retirees find themselves muddling through the whys and wherefores of the 401(k) system -- and they're shooting themselves in the foot along the way. Are you making any of these common blunders?

1. Failing to enroll in the first place. For each of the past several years, Fidelity Investments has published statistics on 401(k) plans, and there's one that doesn't change much from year to year: Unless an employer automatically enrolls everyone, only 63%-64% of eligible employees choose to participate in the average 401(k) plan. That's a majority, sure ... but more than a third of workers are missing out entirely! That third tends to skew younger, which is predictable -- people start worrying more about retirement as it gets closer. But it's also unfortunate, because the earlier you start, the bigger your pile at the end.

2. Cashing out when changing jobs. This one's common among twentysomethings, but it's a mistake at any age. Young folks often start contributing to a 401(k) with the best of intentions. Then they change jobs, get that distribution check -- and blow it on a European vacation or a new car instead of rolling it over. But here's the thing: Even if your balance seems insignificant -- $5,000, say -- the future value is enormous. $5,000 taken out today and used as a down payment on a car gives you several years of transportation. $5,000 left in an index fund that returns an average of 10% annually over the next 40 years turns into $226,296. That might be very handy to have when you retire. (Need specifics? Check out our guide to rolling that money over.)

3. Missing the match. Most employers match your contributions up to some level. If you're not contributing enough to collect the full amount of the match, you're foregoing a monthly bonus that your employer is offering to pay to your retired self. It's free money ­-- get it all!

4. Making the wrong investments. Throwing everything in that aggressive growth fund back in 2004 doesn't look like a great move now, does it? Likewise, sticking with the money market fund when the market turns around -- and I believe it will -- will look just as silly, and might be even more expensive in the long run. Most 401(k) plan providers offer online tools to help you come up with a good asset-allocation strategy that will maximize your growth with minimum fuss. Find yours, use it, and follow its recommendations.

5. Taking loans. Spending a few days in a 401(k) call center several years ago opened my eyes to the ubiquity and dangers of 401(k) loans. These loans have a place, but many plan participants have 10% or more of their balances tied up in loans -- and out of the market -- often for years. That's an expensive mistake, even if the market takes a dive every now and then. Look at how much you'd have lost by pulling money out of these big-name stocks -- popular with many mutual funds -- over the past five years:

Stock

Missed Gain Per $1,000 Borrowed

Altria (NYSE: MO  )

$464.25

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

$4,945.41

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  )

$1,361.26

Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM  )

$1,040.60

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  )

$8,600.60

Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  )

$4,368.28

McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  )

$1,886.24

Source: Yahoo! Finance. Numbers as of market close on Dec. 16, 2008, assuming purchase on Dec. 17, 2003 and reinvestment of dividends.

6. Loading up on company stock. Many plans offer employees the option to invest in the employer's stock, but beware. Jason Zweig, writing in The Wall Street Journal, reports that "12 out of every 100 people whose 401(k)s can hold company stock have at least 60% of their retirement money riding on it."

If your employer is in a big growth phase, or pays a fat dividend, that might sound great -- but it's not. To see why, take a step back and visualize your entire financial picture. You might have savings in the bank, equity in your home, investments in taxable accounts, and your retirement accounts ... and your job. You're already very exposed to the risks of your employer's performance just by working there. If your employer takes a nosedive and you get laid off, at least you'll have your other assets to fall back on -- unless they've taken the same nosedive.

Resolve to fix those blunders
I'd be remiss if I left off one more blunder, one that lots of well-meaning folks make: Failing to stay on top of things. It's certainly understandable -- after all, the 401(k) is designed to help you save with as little involvement as possible. But to get the most out of it, you do need to give it your full attention now and then.

Fortunately, all of these are fixable problems. All you need to do is contact your plan administrator or your company benefits point person, or do a little due diligence to seize control of your retirement future.

Everything you ever wanted to know about 401(k)s, but were afraid to ask, is available in our special report.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Apple. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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John Rosevear
TMFMarlowe

John Rosevear is the senior auto specialist for Fool.com. John has been writing about the auto business and investing for over 20 years, and for The Motley Fool since 2007.

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