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.

Fifty-nine million Americans save for retirement using defined-contribution plans like the 401(k), and together they have more than $4 trillion tucked away in such vehicles.

401(k)s provide individuals with more say in how their retirement funds are invested, but that can be both good and bad. In the olden days, companies generally provided pensions, which meant they called all the shots and bore all the investing risk. Today's defined-contribution plans mean we must take responsibility for our retirement savings.

As scary as that may sound, with the right approach and the right 401(k) plan sponsor, you can do better than you would have with a pension.

Good plan vs. bad plan
Any 401(k) sponsor worth its weight will provide you a selection of mutual funds that invest in domestic large caps like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and General Electric (NYSE:GE) and international stocks like BP (NYSE:BP). But look beneath the surface, and you may find some disturbing facts.

For example, the First American Equity Index fund and the Vanguard 500 Index fund both seek to track the performance of the S&P 500 Index. Both hold the same stocks, with major stakes in Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and AT&T (NYSE:T), but the cost to invest in them is vastly different. The First American fund charges a 5.5% front-end sales load ($55 per $1,000 invested), and then charges a 0.62% expense ratio (including a 0.25% 12b-1 fee) to do the same thing for which the Vanguard fund charges just 0.15% per year.

Why would you pay more than $1,400 in expenses over 10 years for each $10,000 you invest, when you could get even better results for less than $200? If your 401(k) plan has funds with high expenses like this, it's time to consider other options.

Cheeseburger, cheeseburger
Unfortunately, we as employees generally don't get a say in which plan sponsors our companies select. That task is usually left to management or human resources. All we know is that we're handed a thick 401(k) booklet the day we're hired and asked to pick our investments; then we file the booklet away and check our balance every quarter or year, giving little thought to who is sponsoring the plan.

Yet the "who" can be just as important as what investments you've chosen. A good plan sponsor will provide you with:

  • Enrollment assistance
  • A good range of investment options
  • Reasonable fees
  • Easy-to-understand statements
  • Knowledgeable and helpful account representatives
  • Useful education materials

Great, but how do you know you're getting a good deal relative to other sponsors? One place to start is Plansponsor.com, which surveys more than 5,000 sponsors each year and ranks their services on the criteria listed above and more.

Here are the best defined-contribution providers, by market segment, according to Plansponsor.

Micro Market (<$5 million)

Sponsor

Plansponsor score

Ascensus (tie)

23 of 23

Marshall & Ilsey Trust (M&I) (tie)

23 of 23

 Small Market ($5 million-$50 million)

Sponsor

Plansponsor score

Marshall & Ilsey Trust (M&I)

23 of 23

Transamerica Retirement Services

19 of 23

Mid Market ($50 million-$200 million)

Sponsor

Plansponsor score

Marshall & Ilsey Trust (M&I)

21 of 23

Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) (tie)

16 of 23

The Vanguard Group (tie)

16 of 23

Large Market (>$200 million)

Sponsor

Plansponsor score

Diversified Investment Advisors

21 of 23

New York Life

20 of 23

What to do now
If you don't see your company's 401(k) sponsor on this list, don't fret -- but do consider it reason enough to ask your human resources representative what options you have. And yes, you can effect change by simply voicing your concerns, asking to join the company's 401(k) committee, or getting other employees on your side. You may not feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to take these actions, but hey, it's your retirement we're talking about here -- it's time to take charge of it!

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

Todd Wenning only uses exclamation points when he really means it. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. Wal-Mart and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Schwab is a Stock Advisor selection. The Fool is investors writing for investors.