Many people never investigate their 401(k) fees because, frankly, we don't have much choice in the matter. It's like when you married that lovable old lunk of a husband, and you got his terrible moose-head hunting trophy, too. Consider your 401(k) the moose head hanging in the wood-paneled den of your job.
You take what you get, and you make do. For that reason, many of us have no idea that our retirement plans are robbing us blind. Specifically, more than four out of five of us have absolutely no idea how much we pay in fees and expenses, according to a recent AARP survey.
You may think it doesn't matter because you're stuck with what you've got, but it does. If you have a 401(k) that charges excessive fees, you can minimize the damage. Here are five things you can do to mitigate the effects of an expensive 401(k).
- Pick the best from the worst. Knowing how much you pay for your 401(k) is the first step toward lowering your expenses. Chances are good that even if most of the funds in your plan stink, you'll find one or two acceptable options. Look for low fees and an experienced fund manager. You might find an index fund that fits the bill. They typically costs less than the actively managed funds that many 401(k) plans offer. Take a look, too, at the life-cycle funds, which automatically adjust their investments as you approach retirement.
- Put your 401(k) in perspective. It's tempting to look at our finances one account at a time. That can be costly if you're trying to build an entire retirement portfolio within one crummy 401(k). Instead, look at your retirement money as a whole. Pick the best and least costly investment options from your 401(k), and use your other retirement accounts to fill out the rest of your retirement plan.
- Take the free money and run. If your 401(k) plan costs more than a night on the town with Paris Hilton, you might want to save just enough to get the matching contribution from your employer and stop there. But don't shun an expensive plan if there's free money on the table. Your employer's match probably offers a return that you won't get from any mutual fund, no matter how cheap. Besides, you work hard for that free money.
- Dump the dud. If your 401(k) really stinks, you'll probably find it just as advantageous but less expensive to stick with an IRA. Find out whether you qualify for the tax advantages that various types of individual retirement accounts offer. Going this route will also give you a lot more freedom to choose your own investments -- the less expensive ones. Choose your investments and your broker Foolishly, and you'll certainly cut your investment costs.
- Fight for your money. It's true that you're handed a 401(k) plan and asked to take it or leave it, but that doesn't mean you can't try to fight for a better deal. Make yourself and your coworkers aware of excessive fees, and then press for less expensive investment options or a new plan manager. It's your money they're spending on paperwork and investment expenses, and that's money you'll find really handy when it comes time to retire.
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