Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Your 401(k) is not Free

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Several studies in recent years have highlighted the fact that a significant percentage of 401(k) plan participants don’t realize that their company retirement plan is not free.   Further they were not aware that they often pay all or a portion of these expenses out of their plan accounts.

401K - Perfect Solution !?

2011 study by AARP showed that 71% of the 401(k) participants that were surveyed were unaware there were expenses associated with their retirement plan.  The survey also showed a high level of misunderstanding of plan fees even by those who were aware of them.  More recent studies have also shown significant levels of both participants who are unaware of the fees and a high level of misunderstanding, even with the advent of required 401(k) fee disclosures in 2012.

Typical 401(k) plan fees and expenses

There has been an emphasis on the negative impact that high cost 401(k) plans have on the ability of participants to save for retirement via media.  The 2013 PBS Frontline program The Retirement Gamble, for example did a nice job of highlighting the negative impact of high fees on retirement savers.  Some of the expenses that are typical of a 401(k) plan include:

  • Investment expenses.  Here I am primarily referring to the expense ratios of the mutual funds, collective trusts, annuity sub-accounts, or ETFs offered as investment choices by the plan.  Using mutual funds as an example, all mutual funds have an expense ratio whether you invest within a 401(k) plan or outside the plan.  The key is whether the expense ratios of the choices offered by your plan are reasonable.
  • Administration and record keeping.  This includes keeping track of plan assets, participant assets, ensuring that salary deferrals and matching contributions are invested in line with the participant’s elections, generating quarterly statements, as well as various testing and external reporting functions.
  • Custody of plan assets.  This is where the money invested and the mutual funds (or other investment vehicles) are housed.  Examples of custodians might be Fidelity, Vanguard, Schwab, Wells Fargo, etc.
  • Investment advisor.  The fees here are for an outside investment advisor who provides advice to the plan sponsor in areas like investment selection and monitoring and the development of an Investment Policy Statement for the plan.  However, sometimes these charges are simply the compensation for a registered rep who sells the plan to company and may offer little or no actual investment advice. 

Other than mutual fund expense ratios (investor returns are always net of expenses) these expenses may be paid from plan assets (your money), by the company or organization sponsoring the plan, or a combination of both.  For example the plan sponsors who engage my services as advisor to their plan pay my fees from company assets so the plan participants bear none of the cost.

Additionally the delivery of these various functions can be fully bundled, partially bundled, or totally unbundled.  Generally (and hopefully) the outside investment advisor is independent of the other service providers.

Providers like Fidelity, Vanguard, or Principal are example of bundled providers.  They provide the investment platform, custody the assets, and do all of the administration and record keeping.  In an unbundled arrangement, the custodian, record keeper, and the investment advisory functions are all separate and provided by separate entities.

Neither arrangement is inherently good or bad, it is incumbent upon the organization sponsoring the plan to monitor the costs and quality of the services as part of their Fiduciary duty to you the plan participant.  Plan sponsors should insist on transparency regarding all provider expenses.

BrightScope 

BrightScope is a service that independently rates 401(k) plans on a number of criteria.  Check to see if your company’s plan is ranked by them at their site. 

Mutual Fund expenses 

The required fee disclosures that I mentioned above focus on the plan’s investment options and their expenses.  You should start seeing them in the near future.

While they may not look particularly informative and don’t delve into the plan’s total costs, the investment expenses can be telling none the less.

If your plan is via a large employer, you may see institutional share class mutual funds with very low expense ratios.  As an example my wife works for a division of a Fortune 150 company and some of the index funds available to her have expense ratios less than 0.05% which is very low.

In fact looking at the fund share classes offered by your plan is also revealing.

The American Funds offer six share classes for retirement plans ranging from R1 to R6.  Using the popular American Funds EuroPacific Growth fund as an example you can see the differences in the expenses and the impact on return below.

Ticker Expense Ratio 12b-1 5 Year return
R1 RERAX 1.61% 1.00% 15.35%
R2 RERBX 1.60% 0.74% 15.35%
R3 RERCX 1.14% 0.50% 15.90%
R4 REREX 0.85% 0.25% 16.24%
R5 RERFX 0.55% 0.00% 16.58%
R6 RERGX 0.50% 0.00% 16.62%

Source:  Morningstar as of 3/14/14

Looking at this another way, $10,000 invested in the R1 and R6 share classes would have grown to the following amounts by February 28, 2014:

R1  $20,915

R6  $23,022

I think you will agree that this is a rather significant difference.

The 12b-1 fees are included in the fund’s expense ratio and generally go to compensate the plan provider, the registered rep or broker who sold the plan or other service providers.  In the case of the American Funds you generally see the R1, R2, and R3 shares in higher cost, broker sold plans.

Similar share class comparisons can be made with other mutual funds in many other families including Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and even low-cost Vanguard.

According to Morningstar* data as of 12/31/13 here are the median expense ratios for the following investment styles:

Large Blend 1.07%
Large Growth 1.15%
Large Value 1.07%
Mid Cap Blend 1.16%
Mid Cap Growth 1.24%
Mid Cap Value 1.24%
Small Cap Blend 1.23%
Small Cap Growth 1.36%
Small Cap Value 1.31%
Foreign Large Blend 1.23%
Intermediate Bond 0.79%

 

While these are median expense levels I would say that for the most part if the funds in your plan are at these levels they are too expensive.  Index funds across these categories should be 0.25% or less.

Several studies have concluded that the biggest determinant in retirement success is the amount saved.  None the less having access to a solid, low cost 401(k) plan as vehicle for retirement investing is a big plus.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services. 

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Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?

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Tim Armstrong

AOL’s recent announcement that they were moving to a year-end once per year match on their 401(k) plan has sparked a lot of discussion on this issue.  AOL subsequently rescinded this change due to the public relations disaster caused by the firm’s Chairman tying this change to both Obama Care and specifically to two high-risk million dollar births covered by the company’s health insurance in 2012.  None the less other firms, notably IBM, have gone this route in recent years.  What are the implications of a year-end annual 401(k) match for employees and employers?

Implications for employees 

Ron Lieber wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times entitled Beware the End-of-Year 401(k) Match about this topic.  According to Lieber:

“AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, drew plenty of attention earlier this month when he seemed to attribute a change in the company’s 401(k) plan in part to a couple of employees whose infants required expensive care. But what was mostly lost in the discussion was just how much it would cost employees if every employer tried to do what AOL did. 

The answer? Close to $50,000 in today’s dollars by the time they retired, according to calculations that the 401(k) and mutual fund giant Vanguard made this week. That buys a lot of trips to see the grandchildren — or scores of nights in a nursing home.” 

According to the Vanguard study, assuming an employee earns $40,000 per year and contributes 10% of their salary for 40 years, the investments earn 4% after inflation, and the employee receives a 1% salary increase per year, the worker would have a balance that was 8.7% lower with annual matching than with a per pay period match.  Of note, the Vanguard analysis assumes that this hypothetical worker missed 7 years worth of annual matches due to job changes over the course of his/her career.

Lieber also discussed the case of IBM’s move to year-end matching that also proved controversial.  IBM, however, offers all employees free financial planning help and has a generous percentage match.

Additional implications of an annual match from the employee’s viewpoint:

  • One of the benefits of regular contributions to a 401(k) plan is the ability to dollar cost average.  The participants lose this benefit for the employer match.
  • Generally employees have to be employed by the company as of a certain date in order to receive their annual match.  Employees who are looking to change employers will be impacted as will employees who are being laid off by the company.
  • If the annual match is perceived as less generous it might discourage some lower compensated workers from participating in the plan which could lead to the plan not passing it’s annual non-discrimination testing which could lead to restrictions on the amounts that some employees are allowed to contribute to the plan. 

Note employers are not obligated to provide a matching contribution.  Also note that the above does not refer to the annual discretionary profit sharing contribution that some companies make based on the company’s profitability or other metrics.  Lastly to be clear, companies going this route are not breaking any laws or rules.

Implications for employers 

I once asked the VP of Human Resources of one of my 401(k) plan sponsor clients why they chose a particular 401(k) provider.  His response was that this provider’s well-known and respected name was a tool in attracting and retaining the type of employees this company was seeking.

While not all employers offer a retirement plan, many that do cite their 401(k) plan as a tool to attract and retain good employees.

There are, however, some valid reasons why a plan sponsor might want to go the annual matching route:

  • Lower administration costs (conceivably) from only having to account for and allocate one annual matching contribution vs. having to do this every pay period.  Note that in many plans the cost of administration is born by the employees and comes out of plan assets, in other plans the employer might pay some or all of this cost in hard dollars from company assets.
  • Cost savings realized by not having to match the contributions of employees who have left the company prior to year-end or the date of required employment in order to receive the match.
  • Let’s face it the cost of providing employee benefits continues to increase.  Companies are in business to make money.  At some point something may have to give.  While I’m not a fan of these annual matches going this route vs. reducing or eliminating a match is preferable. 

Reasons a company wouldn’t want to go this route:

  • In many industries and in certain types of positions across various industries skilled workers are scarce.  Annual matching can be perceived as a cut in benefits and likely won’t help companies attract and retain the types of employees they are seeking.
  • Companies want to help their employees to retire at some point either because they feel this is the right thing to do and/or because if too many older employees don’t feel they can retire this creates issues surrounding younger employees the company wants to develop and advance for the future. 

Overall I’m not a fan of these annual matches simply because it is tough enough for employees to save enough for their retirement under the defined contribution environment that has emerged over the past 25 years or so.  In many cases the year-end or annual match simply makes it just that much tougher on employees, which is not a good thing.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services. 

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What if My Company’s 401(k) Plan is Lousy?

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Financial advisors (including yours truly) generally suggest maximizing contributions to your company’s 401(k) plan.  But what if your 401(k) plan is lousy?  Here are some tips to help make the best of a lousy 401(k) plan.

401K

Lousy defined 

In what has become the most read post on this blog, 4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan, I discussed these four characteristics of lousy plans:

  • An investment menu consisting of proprietary mutual funds
  • Single fund family investment menus
  • Expensive share classes
  • A group annuity  “wrapper” around the plan 

So what can you do to make the best of a lousy 401(k) plan?

Invest in the best funds in the plan

Even if your plan is lousy often there are at least a couple of decent mutual funds in the plan.   Consider focusing your contribution in these few investment choices and using investment dollars outside of the plan to complete your portfolio’s overall asset allocation. 

Get the full company match

If your company matches your contributions, contribute at least enough to receive the full company match. For example, if your plan offers to match half of all contributions up to 6 percent of your salary, that’s an extra 3 percent contribution from the company, which gives you an instant 50 percent “return” on your money. That’s hard to beat. 

Contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Everyone can contribute $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or over) to an IRA for 2013 and for 2014.   The deductibility of a traditional IRA contribution will depend upon your income and whether you are covered by an employer’s retirement plan.  Likewise, with a Roth IRA there are income ceilings that determine whether you can make a Roth contribution. 

Take advantage of other retirement savings options

If your spouse’s company offers a better 401(k) plan try to maximize your contributions to that plan.  Do you run a business on the side? If the business is generating income, consider starting a retirement plan. Among the options to consider are a SIMPLE, a SEP-IRA, and a Solo 401(k).  Remember that any contribution limits will apply to your company retirement plan and your self-employed retirement plan combined. 

Discuss your concerns with your employer  

Do your homework and outline your concerns with the plan. With new 401(k) disclosure rules that went into effect in 2012, your plan administrator may be more receptive to your input. Of course, common sense and civility should prevail when bringing concerns to the company’s attention.

401(k) and similar defined contribution retirement plans represent an excellent retirement savings vehicle.  The ability to contribute via ongoing salary deferral is a painless way to invest for retirement.  Sadly some employer retirement plans are quite lousy.  If yours is one of these plans make sure to look for additional ways to save and invest for your retirement and be diligent in making those contributions.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss your 401(k) plan and all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.  

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Five 401(k) Investing Tips for This or Any Market

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Benjamin GrahamThe Dow Jones Industrial Average has hit something like 30 new highs this year alone, the S&P 500 is near record levels as well.  Twitter just went public and Obama Care will go into full swing in 2014.  What does any of this mean to you as a 401(k) investor?  Here are five 401(k) investing tips for this or any market environment.

Rebalance your account 

If you’ve let your holdings run it’s quite likely that your account is over allocated to equities given the strong showing the stock market has made so far in 2013.  This would be a good time to look to rebalance your account back to the original allocations that you had intended.  Paring back on stock funds might seem counterintuitive, but essentially you are taking some of your gains off of the table in order to keep the risk associated with your overall portfolio in line.

Consolidate and coordinate 

If you are just starting out in the workforce, it’s likely that your 401(k) is your lone investment vehicle.  By the time you get to your 30s or 40s and beyond it’s likely that you’ve switched jobs several times and have left a number of old 401(k) accounts or IRAs in your wake.  If you are married and both working multiply this financial clutter by two.

Consider consolidating your old 401(k) accounts either in a rollover IRA or into your current employer’s 401(k).  Looking after a number of scattered accounts is counterproductive and makes viewing all of your investment holdings as a consolidated portfolio that much harder.

While we are on the subject, ALWAYS view your 401(k) account as a part of an overall consolidated portfolio.  I create a spreadsheet for each client to do just that, with all of the technology available today this is not difficult, but it may take just a bit of time to lay things out the first time you do it.

The reason for this approach is so that you view your overall asset allocation and the diversification of your portfolio across all investment and retirement accounts.  Are you taking too much risk or not enough?  Do you own the same fund in three accounts all in different share classes?

Increase your salary deferral

This is the time of year where many companies have their employees go through Open Enrollment for their employee benefits.  While you are thinking in terms of benefits this is a good time to boost your salary deferral to ensure that you are contributing the maximum to the plan.  If you can afford it and are not on track to max out for 2013 ($17,500 and $23,500 if you are 50 or over) arrange to have more withheld for the rest of this year and figure out what percentage to apply to your first check in 2014.  How you invest your 401(k) is important, but studies have shown that the amount you save for retirement is the biggest single factor in determining the size of your nest egg.

Don’t default to the Target Date Fund

One of the Target Date Funds offered by your plan might be the right choice for you.  This may be the fund with the target date closest to your anticipated retirement date or some other fund in the series.  It is important that you understand what is under the hood of the Target Date Funds and decide if this is the right approach for you.  Note these funds change from time-to-time as witnessed by some recently announced changes that Fidelity will be making in its Freedom Funds. 

Get the help you need 

Many plan sponsors are offering advice options ranging from online advice to one-on-one advice to managed accounts.  Check out these options and any fees associated with them.  If you work with a financial advisor make sure that they are providing you advice on how to allocate your 401(k) account along with the advice they provide on your other holdings.  Some 401(k) participants are savvy investors, others are not.  If you are in this latter camp, bite the bullet and hire the advice that you need.  This is important, it’s your retirement, and you only have one shot at it.

For better or worse the 401(k) and similar retirement plans are the main source of retirement savings for most of us.  Make the most of your plan regardless of what is going on in the markets or the economy.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss your 401(k) plan and all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.  

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4 Steps to Make Your 401(k) Work as Hard as You Do

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WI: Eau Claire Labor Day celebration, Septembe...

Labor Day is here once again.  A time for picnics and the start of the college football season.  It’s also a good time to step back and make sure that you are on track for retirement.  Whether you work as an employee or you are self-employed you work hard for your money.  In spite of what was said on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble and elsewhere in the press, in my opinion 401(k) plans are one of the best retirement savings vehicles available.  Here are 4 steps to make sure that your 401(k) plan is working hard for your retirement.

Get started 

This might seem basic, but you can’t benefit from your employer’s 401(k) plan unless you are participating.  If you haven’t started deferring a portion of your salary into the plan this is great time to start.  Look at your budget, determine how much you can afford to defer each pay period and get started.  You may be able to do everything online, otherwise contact the plan administrator at your company.

Are you self-employed?  There are a number of retirement plan options to consider including a Solo 401(k).  If you don’t have a retirement plan in place for yourself, do this today.  You work way too hard not to be putting something away for retirement.

Increase your contributions 

This is a great time to review the amount of your salary deferral and look to increase it if you are not already maxing out your contributions.  For 2013 the maximum contribution is $17,500 if you are under 50 and $23,000 if are 50 or over (and if you turn 50 before the end of the year).  For those 50 and over you can still make the full $5,500 catch-up contribution even if your contributions are otherwise limited to an amount below the maximum due to your plan failing its testing.  This situation can occur for highly compensated employees and usually occurs at smaller plans.

If you were enrolled into your employer’s plan under an automatic enrollment scenario the amount you are deferring is likely inadequate to meet your retirement needs, you need to revisit this and take affirmative action both in terms of the amount deferred and the investment options to which those salary deferrals are directed.

It’s often popular to urge 401(k) participants to contribute at least enough to receive the full amount of any company match.  I agree that it makes sense to go for the full match, but the key words here are at least.  The quality of each plan is different, but if your plan offers a solid investment menu and reasonable expenses I suggest that you consider increasing your contributions beyond the minimum required to receive the full company match.  Automatic salary deferrals are an easy, painless way to invest and simplicity in saving for your retirement should not be pooh-poohed.

Take charge of your investments, don’t just default 

Target Date Funds are offered by many 401(k) plans and are often the default option for those participants who do not make an investment election.  While TDFs may be fine for younger participants, I’m not a huge fan for those of you within say 15-20 years of retirement.  If you are in this situation I urge you to look at an allocation that is more tailored to your overall situation.  At the very least if you are going to use the Target Date Fund option offered by your plan take a hard look at how the fund will invest your money, how this fits with investments you may have outside of the plan, and the fund’s expenses.

Plan for your retirement 

While contributing to your 401(k) plan is a great step, it is just that, a step.  The retirement savings crisis facing many workers here in the U.S. has been well-documented.  Your 401(k) is an important tool in planning for retirement, but the keyword is planning.  Many 401(k) plan providers offer retirement planning tools on their websites.  They may also offer advice in some format.  Consider taking advantage.

If you work with a financial advisor make sure that they consider your 401(k) and all investments when helping you plan for your retirement.  I find it amazing every time that I hear of some brokerage firm that forbids its registered reps from providing clients advice on investing their 401(k) account because the plan is not offered by their firm.

As a starting point, check out the retirement planning calculator tool at the end of this post.  You may have seen this in several other blog posts on this site, but I feel this is a critical step for many of you and I hope that you will take a moment to utilize this tool.  Nobody but you will see your information or the outcomes.

While this is an excellent tool, please remember the results only provide a first step in the retirement planning process.  This is not a substitute for an in-depth financial plan done by a qualified professional.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your 401(k) and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

Retirement plan sponsors, do you need an independent review of your company’s plan?  Do you need help selecting a new plan provider?  Are you looking for ongoing financial advice to help you meet your fiduciary obligations and to provide a superior retirement savings vehicle for your employees?  Would you like to offer your plan participants access to fee-only, unconflicted advice on how to manage their 401(k) accounts and plan for their retirement?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors

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Led Zeppelin and Your 401(k)

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Led Zeppelin -- Led Zeppelin

Andrea Coombes recently wrote an excellent piece for Market Watch entitled “401(k) savers are confused and stressed.”   The title of Andrea’s article reminded me of the classic Led Zeppelin song Dazed and Confused.  Led Zeppelin is perhaps the greatest rock band of all-time.  Lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page are true rock legends.  Dating myself a bit, I still have the original vinyl versions of Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III that I bought in my early teens.

Whether you prefer Andrea’s article title or the title of the Led Zeppelin song, the confusion felt by many 401(k) investors is real and is an impediment to retirement success.

Schwab Survey 

The Market Watch article cited several findings from a Charles Schwab survey of 1,004 people who invest in a 401(k):

But more than half of the 401(k) savers said their plan’s investment options are more confusing than their health-care benefits, and 57% said they wish it were easier to choose among their plan’s investing choices.

Forty-six percent of savers said they don’t know what their best investment options are, and 34% said deciding how to invest in their 401(k) is causing them a lot of stress. (The survey respondents ranged in age from 25 to 75, and worked at companies with 25 or more employees.)”

Too many choices 

A 401(k) plan sponsor for whom I serve as advisor had a menu of over 150 distinct choices when we first started working them.   We have worked with the sponsor and the plan provider to pare down  the menu to three tiers that include access to Target Date Funds; a menu of 16 core individual mutual funds; and access to a brokerage link for those participants who prefer a purely self-directed approach.

A 401(k) with too many choices always reminds me of my frustration with many of the excellent family restaurants here in the Chicago area.  The menus are complete to the point of being like a small encyclopedia and all the choices look great.  Add to that a desert display when you walk in and making a final selection is often difficult.

Target Date Funds 

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Target Date Funds.  On the one hand I love the idea of a professionally managed, instantly diversified portfolio.  For young 401(k) savers like my 25 year daughter I think this is a great option.  She gets instant diversification and a portfolio that is appropriately aggressive for her age.

For investors in their 30s and 40s and beyond I’m not as sold on Target Date Funds.   By this time I’d hope that you’ve accumulated some investment assets and are ready to take charge of your financial future.  To me this means that you have a financial plan in place that includes an investment strategy tailored to match your individual financial goals.

If you decide to go the Target Date Fund route make sure that you understand the underlying investments of the funds as well as the fund’s expense ratio.  Remember that you are not obligated to invest in the fund with the target date closest to your anticipated retirement date.  Lastly remember that Target Date Funds from different families with the same target date may be vastly different.  Do your homework before investing.

401(k) investing tips

In an earlier post on this blog, I listed 5 timeless tips for 401(k) investors:

  • Stick with it
  • Contribute as much as you can
  • View you 401(k) as part of your overall portfolio
  • Don’t ignore your 401(k)
  • Use Target Date Funds with caution

To these tips I’d add two others, keep it simple and get outside help if you need it.

Many plans offer low cost index fund choices.  For example a relatively simple, but diversified portfolio could be constructed from say a Total U.S Stock Index fund, a Total International Stock Index fund, and a Total Bond Market Index fund.

If you need outside help to allocate your 401(k) as well as your other investments, get it.  Many 401(k) plans offer advice or managed accounts that are more tailored to the individual participant’s situation than a Target Date Fund.  Beyond this consider hiring a qualified Fee-Only financial advisor to help you.

Not sure where you stand on your journey to a successful retirement?  Check out the retirement calculator at the end of this post.  While this is an excellent tool, please remember the results only provide a first step in the retirement planning process.  This is not a substitute for an in-depth financial plan done by a qualified professional.

A 401(k) plan can be a daunting and intimidating investment vehicle.  Being dazed and confused is great when listening to Led Zeppelin.  However this state of mind has no place in plotting your financial future.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your 401(k) and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

Retirement plan sponsors, do you need an independent review of your company’s plan?  Do you need help selecting a new plan provider?  Are you looking for ongoing financial advice to help you meet your fiduciary obligations and to provide a superior retirement savings vehicle for your employees?  Would you like to offer your plan participants access to fee-only, unconflicted advice on how to manage their 401(k) accounts and plan for their retirement?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors

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Should You Tap Your 401(k) to Buy Real Estate?

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English: New housing estate in Downham Market ...

There was a recent article on the CNN/Money website entitled Amateur investors tap 401(k)s to buy homes that discussed an increasing trend of 401(k) investors who tap their accounts to buy houses.  The thought process is to take advantage of the hot housing market in some areas on the country with money that would otherwise be locked up in a 401(k) until retirement.  Home prices are appreciating in some markets, so what’s wrong with this strategy?

Plenty is wrong with it, let’s take a look.

You distrust Wall Street but you trust the housing market?  Really? 

The article cites the distrust that some of these investors have of Wall Street and a desire to own hard assets.  I get the distrust of Wall Street in the wake of the 2008-2009 market drop.  These same folks must have short memories regarding the role that the drop in housing values played in the recession and the lingering effects of on many families.  Yes prices are low, but they are rising.  Are you knowledgeable enough to know if the property that you are buying is really a good deal?  Distrust Wall Street all you want, but the fact of the matter is that investors who hold a reasonably diversified portfolio saw their 401(k) and other investments recover within a couple of years of the 2009 market bottom.

Are you getting in too late? 

According to the article, Wall Street Investors are also entering this market and in some cases have bid up the price of homes in many of these hot markets.  Much like the John Hancock TV commercial touting the idea of getting back into the stock market now that it is at new highs, is this an ideal time to be taking your retirement funds and investing them into a “hot” housing market?

Are you smarter than the professional investors? 

As mentioned above this opportunity has come to the attention of Wall Street investors.  Think what you want about Wall Street, these firms have the resources in terms of capital and research that you don’t.  I’m not saying that individual investors can’t outdo the professionals, but ask yourself are you one of these real estate investors who can?  Do you want to risk your retirement savings to find out?

Understand the potential costs and risks 

In order to get at your money in a 401(k) plan you will likely need to take a loan from the plan.  There are no tax consequences of doing this and as long as you repay the loan there won’t be any.  Understand, however, that if you leave your job before fully repaying the loan, any remaining loan balance could end up becoming a distribution which would trigger income taxes and a 10% penalty if you are under 59 ½.

Further there is a potential opportunity cost.  Are you convinced that your real estate investment will outperform what you might have gained in your 401(k) plan?  Additionally, if your investment goes south you might end up with a property that is worth less than you paid for it, you are paying back your loan on the 401(k), and the house might be underwater if there is a mortgage involved.

Look before you leap 

Let’s be clear, I’m not against investing in real estate, in fact many have made their fortunes from doing just that.  What I am against is a novice who has read about the opportunities in the housing market taking funds from their 401(k) and investing in something they barely understand.

Will this always end badly?  No.  This might be a successful route to take for someone who understands real estate investing and who understands the risks.  If this doesn’t describe you ask yourself is this a good use of my retirement funds?

Please feel free to contact me with your investing and financial planning questions.  Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.  

Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you.  

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Stock Market Highs and Your 401(k)

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As you are probably aware, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a record high of 14,296; the second day in row for a record close.  Intra-day the index topped the 14,300 mark for the first time ever.  By this benchmark we’ve now gotten past the financial crisis as the prior high was reached pre-crisis in 2007. The S&P 500 Index is also near record territory.  During the financial crisis there was much handwringing about how the 401(k) had failed retirement savers.  It was popular to refer to accounts with reduced balances from losses as a “201(k).”

As of the end of 2012, Fidelity reported that the average 401(k) account balance had risen some 12% during 2012 to $77,300 from $69,100 at the end of 2011.  This is also up from early 2009 when the average was $46,100.  Fidelity estimated that about 2/3 of the 2012 gains were from investment gains and the other 1/3 from a combination of employee salary deferrals and employer matches.

What do I do now with my 401(k) now? 

If you are looking for profound, radical advice here, I suggest that you stop reading this article now.  This will save you from wasting the next 30 seconds of your life.

Assuming that you are still here, the suggestions that I have for the current situation are the same as I would have offered a year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago.  I would have made the same suggestions at the depths of the 2008-2009 financial crises as well.

Review and Rebalance 

A market high is always a good time to review your 401(k) account to ensure that things are not too far out of balance.  Ideally you have a target allocation for investments you chose.  Generally if a client’s allocation varies by more than +/- 5% of the target we consider rebalancing.  Given how quickly the market has risen this year your account might need some attention here.

Review your 401(k) account as part of your overall portfolio 

If you have investments outside of your 401(k) plan such as taxable accounts (stocks, mutual funds, etc.); IRAs; a spouse’s retirement plan and the like this is a good point to review not only your 401(k) account but your overall portfolio.  If you have a financial plan in place a market high is a good point to take stock of how you are tracking toward financial goals such as retirement.  Are you ahead of schedule?  If so perhaps this is a good point in time to not only rebalancing but to consider reducing the risk profile of your portfolio.

Take the long view 

If you watch enough of CNBC or other cable financial news shows, or read enough articles on the web about investing you can probably find someone who will support any position ranging from an impending stock market Armageddon to someone saying this Bull Market will run for another five years or more.  The route to go in my opinion is to largely ignore all of this hype, get a financial plan in place, and invest your 401(k) and any other investment holdings as a total portfolio in line with the goals and risk tolerance that flow out of the financial planning process.

Please feel free to contact me with your financial planning and investing questions. 

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your 401(k) holdings and all of your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.  Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you. 

Photo credit:  takeasmartstep.com

 

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