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Give Your 401(k) a 2021 Checkup in 5 Simple Steps

By Robin Hartill, CFP® - Jan 3, 2021 at 9:37AM

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Set aside a few minutes to make sure your 401(k) is healthy as the new year begins.

Making 401(k) contributions is often autopilot investing, which can be a good thing. You're practicing dollar-cost averaging, which means you automatically invest regularly whether stocks are up or down. Because you fund a 401(k) through payroll deductions, you probably don't even miss the money you invest.

But you don't want to go into complete hands-off mode with your 401(k) plan. Checking in every so often will ensure you choose the best investment options and that you're on track to hit your retirement goals. Here's how to give your 401(k) a quick checkup in 2021.

A notebook on a table with the word "401(k)" written in red.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Check the beneficiary

Even if you have a will, it's essential to check that the beneficiary you've designated for your retirement accounts is still the person who should receive the money when you die. Beneficiary designations supersede wills. That means if the beneficiary listed on your 401(k) is someone you divorced a decade ago and your will says that your new spouse gets all your assets, your ex-spouse will still get your 401(k) money.

While the new year is a good time to review your beneficiaries, it's essential that you update this information any time you experience a major life event, such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child.

2. Estimate your retirement goals

It's tough to predict your retirement needs, particularly if you're in your 20s or 30s. But financial planners generally recommend replacing about 80% of pre-retirement income. Even if your golden years are decades away, use a retirement calculator at least once a year to estimate whether you're on track to reach your goals. As you get closer to retirement, it will be easier to plug in more-precise numbers because you'll have a better sense of how long you want to work and when you plan to claim Social Security.

3. Make a plan for catching up

If you're falling short, the sooner you can start saving more, the easier it will be to catch up. Make sure you're getting your full company 401(k) match. Beyond that, look at ways to save more, even if you can only afford to invest an extra 1% or 2% of your salary. If your 401(k) plan's investment options are limited, you may want to contribute only the amount you need to get your full match and then invest the rest using an individual retirement account (IRA)

In 2021, you're allowed to contribute:

  • Up to $19,500 to your 401(k), plus an extra $6,500 if you're 50 or older.
  • Up to $6,000 to your IRA, plus an extra $1,000 if you're 50 or older.

4. Review your risk tolerance and asset allocation

You never want to drastically change your risk tolerance in response to short-term stock market fluctuations. But revisiting how much risk you're taking with your 401(k) once a year is a good strategy. If you're terrified of a stock market crash or you're getting closer to retirement, you'll want to shift some of your holdings from stocks to bonds, even if that means lower returns. Or if you're worried that your money won't grow fast enough, you'd shift more into stocks, even if that means taking more risk.

The 110 rule can give you a good estimate of what your allocation should be: Subtract your age from 110 to get your proper stock allocation. So a 30-year-old would aim for 80% stocks and 20% bonds, while a 50-year-old would want 60% stocks and 40% bonds.

5. Make sure your fees are low

Review your 401(k) fees each year to be sure investment costs aren't eating away at your returns. Many plans offer target date funds that automatically rebalance based on your age and planned retirement date. Convenient, yes, but the average expense ratio is 0.51%, meaning that $51 of a $10,000 investment goes toward fees.

Many plans also offer passively managed index funds with an expense ratio of 0.1% or less. That may not sound like a huge difference, but if you invest $5,000 per year and get 6% annual returns, lowering your expense ratio from 0.51% to 0.1% would leave you with nearly $30,000 extra at the end of 30 years.

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