Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

5 Reasons 401(k) Lawsuits Matter to You


Several 401(k) lawsuits against major employers have been in the news this year. These suits are about high fees, conflicts of interest and plan sponsors failing to live up to their fiduciary obligations.


Ameriprise Financial settled a suit that alleged that the firm offered a number of its own proprietary mutual funds in the company’s 401(k) plan and collected revenue sharing payments on these funds from an Ameriprise subsidiary.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tibble vs. Edison International that the large utility company had a duty to monitor the investments offered in the plan no matter how long along they were initially added to the plan. One of the issues here surrounds the fact that lower cost share classes of these funds became available but the plan stayed with the higher cost retail share class.

Most recently Boeing settled a lawsuit that was first filed in 2006 for $57 million. The suit alleged that the company had breached its fiduciary duty to its employees by using high cost and risky investment options in the plan and by allowing the plan’s record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

While all of this may be interesting, you may be asking what does any of this have to do with me? Here are 5 reasons 401(k) lawsuits matter to you.

Plan Sponsors have a fiduciary obligation 

These and a growing number of 401(k) related lawsuits have reaffirmed that retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan participants. This includes:

  • The selection and monitoring of the mutual funds (or other investment vehicles) offered in the plan.
  • The selection and monitoring of the service providers selected for the plan.
  • All costs and fees associated with the plan.

Moreover plan sponsors should have a process in place to manage all aspects of the plan.

Mutual Fund share classes 

Several of the lawsuits centered on plan sponsors offering expensive retail share classes of funds when lower cost share classes were available. These higher cost share classes might throw off more revenue sharing and other fees to the plan but they are more expensive for the plan participants. It behooves plan sponsors more now than ever to offer the lowest cost share classes of a given fund available to them.

Numerous studies have shown the connection between lower investment costs and investment return. Well-run 401(k) plans strive to keep investment costs down and one way to do this is to ensure that the plan offers the lowest mutual fund share classes available.

Duty to monitor 

As shown in the Tibble versus Edison ruling the Supreme Court said plan sponsors have a duty to continue to monitor the investments offered in the plan long after they may have been initially offered. This dovetails into an ongoing duty of plan sponsors to monitor the investments offered to you to ensure the costs are reasonable and that they meet a set of criteria.

Typically a 401(k) that is well-monitored and managed via a consistent investment process will tend to offer a better investment line-up to their participants.

Manage plan expenses 

Boeing recently settled the second largest 401(k) suit in history at $57 million. In part the allegations included that Boeing allowed its outside record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

This and other suits underscore the responsibility of plan sponsors to manage 401(k) plan costs and the activities of plan providers such as an outside record keeper. To the extent that administrative expenses are paid out of plan assets plan sponsors who strive to keep these expenses low are doing the right thing for their employees.

Plan Sponsors are getting it 

While this is not a blanket statement as there are still plenty of lousy 401(k) plans out there, there is evidence that plan sponsors are getting the message that they have a responsibility to the plan’s participants.

As an example mutual fund expenses in 401(k) plans have been declining for the past 15 years. Fewer companies are mandating the use of company stock in their 401(k) plans and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling will certainly help keep this trend going.

The Bottom Line 

Retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants. A number of 401(k) lawsuits in recent years have served to reinforce this duty and this is a good thing for those participating in 401(k) plans. As a plan participant become knowledgeable about the investments offered in your plan and how much the plan is costing you. If you have concerns raise them in a constructive fashion to your employer.

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Six Reasons Small Businesses Should Offer a 401(k) Plan


The statistics on the number of American workers not covered by a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) are sobering. According to a 2011 survey just over half of all American workers had access to a workplace retirement plan.

Sadly all too often the reason that smaller companies don’t offer a 401(k) plan are that they can be expensive and there are a vast number of government rules and regulations that must be followed. Small business owners have all that they can handle in running and growing their companies.

Here are six reasons that a small business should consider offering a 401(k) plan for their employees.

The owner’s retirement needs

 Small business owners work hard to manage and grow their companies. Unlike with a larger organization there generally are not armies of employees to handle administrative tasks like human resources or accounting. The owner is often the face of the business and intimately involved in sales and various business processes. It is not uncommon for small business owners to put in many long hours and take very little time off.

Too often the hope is that the value of the business will serve as their retirement plan. Maybe this will happen; they will find a willing buyer who will pay a premium price for the company. Or maybe it won’t happen at least not quite that way.

A 401(k) plan allows the business owner to contribute up to $18,000 or $24,000 (if 50 or over) of their compensation for 2015. In addition they can make a profit sharing contribution as well. This can bring the total combined employee deferral and employer contribution for the owner to a maximum of $53,000 or $59,000 if they are 50 or over. This can go a long way towards helping the business owner fund a comfortable retirement for themselves.

Business contributions and tax dedications

Any employer matching contributions will be tax-deductible as will any costs incurred by the employer in connection with offering the plan.

In order to alleviate any restrictions on the amount the business owner and top executives can contribute for themselves the company may decide on a safe harbor plan that entails a minimum matching level or a minimum level of contributions to the accounts of all employees whether they contribute to the plan or not. The safe harbor contributions are immediately vested for the employees. In exchange the owner will not be limited as to the amount of their contributions based on the results of the required non-discrimination testing. Certainly not all small businesses will be able to afford the safe harbor contributions but for those that can this is a great solution for the owners and the employees.

Doing the right thing for employees

There many articles written and studies done that point to a retirement savings crises in this country. Part of the problem as mentioned above is the lack of availability of a workplace retirement plan for a number of U.S. workers.

Offering your employees a low cost 401(k) plan is a great way to help them save for their retirement and frankly it’s the right thing to do for employees. They work hard and contribute to the success of the business, they should have the opportunity to save for their own retirement and build a measure of financial security for themselves and their families.

Attract and retain top talent

With the economy having largely recovered from the financial crises unemployment is low and many companies are having a hard time finding the workers they need in some cases. Top talent expects to be well-compensated and a quality 401(k) plan is a part of a top-notch compensation package. While likely not the main driver of determining whether a top prospective employee accepts your job offer, a really lousy 401(k) plan (or no plan) might be the “tie-breaker.”

Likewise if a valued employee is being courted by a competitor and that competitor has a robust benefits package that includes a much better 401(k) plan that might be the difference between retaining that key employee and losing them. 

Financial wellness can help the bottom line

Employees who are worried about retirement or other financial issues may be less productive at work. Stressed out employees might also drive up the company’s healthcare costs.

According to a survey by benefits consultant AON Hewitt about 90% of the country’s 250 largest employers also recognize the impact of financial stress on their workforce and will be looking to expand or start financial wellness programs.

Small businesses may not have the resources of these large companies but offering a solid, low cost 401(k) plan is a positive step for their employees on the road towards financial wellness. 

Technology has expanded plan options

Just a few years ago smaller plans and start-ups had very few alternatives and most of those alternatives were high cost plans with questionable investment choices. Insurance company group annuities were also a common option in this market, again generally an expensive, unattractive option.

There are a number of low-cost 401(k) options for small businesses today that thanks in large part to technological advances can offer a complete package including administration, education and low-cost investing options at a reasonable price. Some of these providers serve as plan fiduciaries taking that responsibility off of the shoulders of the business owner.

Frankly cost and the rules connected with running a plan can make it a hassle where these issues and the costs outweigh the good of offering the plan in the minds of many small business owners. The new generation of user-friendly low cost options for small businesses remove this hurdle.

The Bottom Line 

Traditionally the 401(k) options for small businesses have been limited to high cost options with less than desirable investment options. Today with the advances in technology there are a number of low cost, low-hassle options for small companies to consider. Offering a 401(k) plan is a win-win for small businesses in that the owners win and so do their employees.

This post was sponsored (meaning that I was compensated) by San Francisco based ForUsAll an innovative provider of low cost turnkey 401(k) solutions for small businesses. They had no editorial input on anything above. 

I discovered ForUsAll in a finance blogging group that I am part of and was very impressed with what they can offer a small business looking for a turn-key 401(k) solution. They take all of the administrative and compliance burdens off the shoulders of the plan sponsor through their status as a 3(16) fiduciary. Via their menu of low-cost Vanguard funds and their technology they offer a complete 401(k) solution that includes guidance for employees.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner

The Risks of Too Much Company Stock in Your 401(k) Plan


Retirement plan sponsors are starting to get it, requiring 401(k) participants to hold company stock in their accounts exposes them to major fiduciary liability if the stock price tanks. That said it is still an option in many 401(k) plans.

According to Fidelity about 15 million people own about $400 billion in company stock across 401(k) plans that they administer.

Too dependent on your employer    

Just ask former employees of Enron, Lehman Brothers or Radio Shack about this.

All employees depend on their employer for a paycheck. If you add a high level of company stock as a component of your 401(k) account you have a recipe for disaster. If the company tanks you might find yourself out of job with no income. If this difficulty causes the stock price to decline you are not only unemployed but your retirement nest egg has taken a hit as well.

How much is too much? 

There is no one right answer; this will vary on a case by case basis. Many financial advisors say the total in employer stock should be kept to a maximum of 5% to 10% of total investment assets. This not only includes stock held in your retirement plan but also shares held outside the plan as well shares represented by any stock options or restricted shares that may be held.

Employers and fiduciary risk 

In the past it was more common for companies to use their stock as the matching vehicle in the 401(k) plan and to require that it be held for a period of time. Both are less common today due to a number of lawsuits by employees against companies after significant declines in the price of their employer’s stock. Plan sponsors want to avoid this type of fiduciary liability.


It is important to set a maximum allocation to your employer’s stock in your 401(k) plan and in total.  Use increases in the stock price as opportunities to take profits and diversify. Within your 401(k) plan there will be no taxes to pay on the gains, though there will be taxes due down the road when taking distributions from a traditional 401(k).

Make sure you fully understand any restrictions on selling company shares held in your plan.

Discounted purchases 

Often employees have the opportunity to purchase shares of company stock at a discount from the current market price. This is a great feature but the decision to purchase and how much to hold should not be overly influenced by this feature.

Net Unrealized Appreciation 

If you leave your employer and hold company shares in your 401(k) plan consider using the net unrealized appreciation (NUA) rules for the stock.

NUA allows employees to take their company stock as a distribution to a taxable account while still rolling the other money in the plan to an IRA if they wish. The distribution of the company stock is taxable immediately, at ordinary income tax rates, based upon the employee’s original cost versus the current market value.

The advantage for holders of highly appreciated shares can be sizable. Any gains on the stock will qualify for long-term capital gains treatment where the rates are generally lower. For a large chunk of company stock the savings can be very significant. Note there are very specific rules regarding the use of NUA so it is best to consult with a knowledgeable financial or tax advisor if you are considering going this route.

The Bottom Line 

Holding excessive amounts of your company’s stock in your 401(k) plan can expose you to undo risk should your employer run into financial difficulty. You could find yourself unemployed and with a much lower retirement plan balance if the stock price drops significantly. Set a target percentage for your overall holdings of employer stock and periodically sell shares if needed to rebalance just as you would any other holding in the plan.

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire


According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants grew to a record high of $91,300 at the end of 2014.  This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform.

According to Fidelity about 72,000 participants had a balance of $1 million which is about double the number at the end of 2012 and about 5 times the number at the end of 2008.  What their secret?  Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint.  Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $18,000 and $24,000 for those who are 50 or over.  If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you.  Even if you plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues this catch-up amount is not impacted.  It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to the Fidelity study the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent, while the average contribution across all 401(k) investors they surveyed was about 8 percent.  The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site it is important to contribute as much as you can.  If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start.  Next year try to hit 4 percent or more.  As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them.  They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer.  I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan.  The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments.  By the time you are say in your 40s you should consider a more tailored portfolio that fits you overall situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement.  They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general.  The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation.  If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance.  The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts the points mentioned above still apply.  In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job.  Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan if allowed do something, make a decision.  Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can be a huge detriment to your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether or not you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement.  The steps outlined above can help you to do this.  Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

7 Reasons to Avoid 401(k) Loans


One of the features of many 401(k) plans is the ability for participants to take a loan against their balance.  There are rules governing what the loans can be used for, the number of loans that can be outstanding at one time, and the percentage of your account balance that can be borrowed.  Additionally there is a time limit by which these loans need to be repaid.

It is the decision of the organization sponsoring the plan whether or not to allow loans and also as to what they can be used for.  Typical reasons allowed are for college expenses for your children, medical expenses, the purchase of a home, or to prevent eviction from your home.

The flexibility offered by allowing loans is often touted as one of the good features of the 401(k).  However taking a loan from your 401(k) also carries some downsides.  Here are 7 reasons to avoid 401(k) loans.  

Leaving your job triggers repayment 

If you leave your job with an outstanding loan against your 401(k) account the balance can become due and payable immediately.  This applies whether you leave your job voluntarily or involuntarily via some sort of termination.  While your regularly scheduled repayments are deducted from your paycheck, you will need to come up with the funds to repay the loan upon leaving your job or it will become a taxable distribution.  Additionally if you are under 59 ½ a 10% penalty might also apply.

Opportunity costs in a rising market

While loan repayments do carry an interest component which you essentially pay to yourself, the interest rate might be much lower than what you might have earned on your investments in the plan during a rising stock market.  Obviously this will depend upon the market conditions and how you would have invested the money.  This can lead to a lower balance at retirement resulting in a lower standard of living or possibly necessitating that you work longer than you had planned.

There are fees involved 

There are often fees for loan origination, administration, and maintenance which you will be responsible for paying.

Interest is not tax deductible 

Even if the purpose of the loan is to purchase your principal residence interest on 401(k) loans is not tax-deductible.

No flexibility in the repayment terms 

The loan payments are taken from your paycheck which all things being equal will reduce the amount of money you bring home each pay period.  If you run into financial difficulty you cannot change the terms of the loan repayment.

You might be tempted to reduce your 401(k) deferrals 

The fact that you now have to repay the loan from your paycheck might cause you to reduce the amount you are saving for retirement via your salary deferral to the plan.

You will have less at retirement 

A loan against your 401(k) plan will result in lower nest egg at retirement.  Given the difficulty many in the United States already have in accumulating a sufficient amount for retirement this only adds to the problem.

You should especially avoid 401(k) loans if:

  • You are near retirement
  • You feel that your job security is in jeopardy
  • You are planning to leave your job in the near future
  • You are already behind in saving for retirement
  • You have other sources to obtain the money you need
  • You feel that repaying the loan will be financial hardship 

Look life happens and sometimes taking a loan from your 401(k) plan can’t be avoided.  The economy has been tough for many over the past few years.  However if at all possible avoid taking a 401(k) loan and rather let that money grow for your retirement.  Down the road you will be glad you did.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Also check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Your 401(k) – A To Do List for the Rest of 2014


In a recent post Eight Financial To Do Items for the Rest of 2014, I outlined several items for your financial to do list for the rest of 2014.  One of those items was to review your 401(k) plan.  Here are a few more steps to take with your 401(k) plan yet this year.

Review your salary deferral amount

The maximum dollar amount that you can defer from your salary is $17,500 or $23,000 if you are 50 or over at any point during 2014.  If you are not on track to max out your contributions now is a good time to see if you can increase your salary deferral percentage even by 1%.  In the long run this will put you that much farther ahead in your question to build a retirement nest egg.

Review and if needed rebalance your account

Both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average have hit a number of new record highs during 2014 on the heels of a very solid 2013.  In fact the S&P 500 Index is up almost threefold since the market lows of March, 2009.  If you haven’t recently rebalanced the asset allocation of your account back to your target allocation this is an excellent time to do so.  Better still if your plan offers auto rebalancing this is a great time to sign up if you haven’t already.

Be aware of any changes to the plan

Fall is open enrollment time for employee benefits for many companies.  While changes to the level of your salary deferral contributions as well as to the investment choices you make can be done throughout the year, many companies choose this time frame to announce changes to their plan for the upcoming year.  This might include the level of the employer match, the addition of a Roth 401(k) feature, or changes to the menu of investment choices available to you.  You need to be aware of any and all changes to the plan and be ready to make any applicable adjustments based upon your situation.

Be cautious when it comes to company stock 

Perhaps as a sub-set of the rebalancing section mentioned earlier if your account includes an investment in your company’s stock this is a good time to review how much you have allocated there and if needed pare that amount down.  There are no hard and fast rules but many financial advisors suggest keeping your allocation to company stock to 10% or less.  The rational here is that you already depend upon your employer for your livelihood; if the company runs into problems you might find yourself unemployed and holding a lot of devalued company stock in your retirement plan.

Get a handle on any old 401(k) accounts 

It’s not uncommon for folks to have several old 401(k) accounts from former employers.  It’s also not uncommon for these accounts to be neglected and unwatched.  If this describes you make this the year to get your arms around these accounts and make some decisions.  Roll them over to an IRA or if eligible to your current 401(k) plan.  If leaving one or more of them with that former employer is a good decision make sure you monitor the account, rebalance when needed, etc.  The point is even if these accounts are relatively small they can add up and help as you save for retirement.  Take charge and take affirmative action here.

Understand your options should you leave your current employer 

Let’s face it the last part of the year is often when companies do layoffs.  If you suspect that you will be impacted in this way you should at least start thinking about what you will do with your 401(k) account.  The same holds true if you are looking for a new job or considering going out on your own.

As we head into football season, the kid’s activities at school, and the holidays please make some time to tend to these and perhaps other items in connection with your 401(k) plan.  For many of us our 401(k) is our primary retirement savings vehicle, make sure that it is working hard for you.

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6 Signs of a Good 401(k) Plan


Much has been written about lousy 401(k) plans, and rightly so there are a lot of them out there.  But what does a good 401(k) plan look like?  Here are 6 signs of a good 401(k) plan.

    • Reasonable administrative expenses.
    • An investment menu that contains solid, low-cost choices, including index fund alternatives.
    • An investment committee or similar group that monitors the plan’s investments and manages the plan in accordance with an investment policy statement.
    • An investment line-up that includes some sort of a managed option for participants who are uncomfortable managing their investments. This might be Target Date Funds, or even access to direct advice.
    • The investment line-up contains choices across a wide range of asset classes.
    • The investment menu isn’t stuffed with proprietary mutual funds or a majority of choices from a single fund family. 

A few thoughts on several of these items: 

Reasonable administrative expenses 

Frankly this will be difficult for most 401(k) participants to gauge.  Depending upon how your plan is structured via your company and the plan provider all of the costs to administer the plan may be covered by the expense ratios of the mutual funds (or other investment options) offered via revenue sharing or similar arrangements.

The expenses paid out of plan assets (your account balance)  over and above what might be covered by the expense ratios of the mutual funds offered will be listed on your quarterly account statements as part of the required fee disclosures that also include separate disclosures pertaining to the plan’s investments.  They may be a bit cryptic and are usually listed as one or several line items on the statement.

To approximate what you are paying in total (including admin expenses) you will need to take a weighted average of the fund expense ratios for the investment options you hold plus these expenses listed on your statement (double check to see if these are annual or quarterly) and divide the total into your balance.

Don’t take this as a hard and fast benchmark, but anything over 1% I would consider high as many plans I have dealt with are far lower all-in.

One way to gauge where your plan falls is to check the BrightScope site and type your company’s or plan’s name in the retirement plan search are on the top right of the site.  You’ll note that if your plan is rated there will be several rankings including plan cost.  Note there is a drop down box where you can compare your plan to both all plans and also to plans in a similar size range.  This ranking is a helpful tool as a starting point. 

Low cost investment choices 

While low costs don’t guarantee good investment returns, low mutual fund expenses have been shown to be a predictor of better investment returns.

Index funds are often cited as a solid low cost investment option and for the most part this is true.  Index funds are also generally true to their investment style and in many cases out perform a high percentage of actively managed funds.

Low cost also pertains to offering the lowest cost share class available to the plan in the case of mutual funds.  Examples of low cost share classes include:

  • Fidelity’s K share class
  • Institutional (applies to many fund families)
  • Vanguard Admiral or Signal shares (the latter will be phased out and converted to Admiral shares)
  • American Funds R6
  • T. Rowe Price (not the R or Adv share classes) 

Additionally many large employers are able to offer ultra-low cost institutional options via their plan provider.

Target Date Funds and managed options 

Target Date Funds are a huge growth area for mutual fund providers since the Pension Protection Act of 2006 made them a Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA).  In plain English this means that plan sponsors can direct the salary deferrals of participants who do not make an affirmative investment election into the Target Date Fund closest to their projected retirement age.  Fidelity, Vanguard, and T. Rowe Price collectively have 70% or more of the total Target Date Fund assets.

Some plans might offer risk-based accounts that invest in a static asset mix as opposed to the Target Date Funds that will reduce their allocation to stocks as the fund moves closer to its target date.  At some point the Target Date Fund will move to a glide path which is a fixed allocation to equity that the fund maintains at some point which will vary widely by fund family.

Some plans may offer access to professional management of your account.  Typically there would be some sort of fee (often charged as a percentage of the assets in your account).  In some cases the plan provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity, or others might offer this service and in other cases it might be an external vendor such as Financial Engines.

I view the availability of any or all of the above options as a positive, but I also urge plan participants to fully understand what they are investing in in terms of Target Date Funds or risk-based options.  This also applies to any professional management services as well.  Just like choosing a financial advisor of any type you need to fully understand how they are allocating your money, do they consider outside investments in making their recommendations, and are they a fiduciary. 

The investment menu 

A well-rounded investment menu should include options covering a number of domestic and international equity styles, bonds, and fixed income, as well as a cash option (typically a money market fund or a stable value fund).  In addition other asset classes such as real estate, commodities, and others could be offered depending upon demographics of the participants and the desires of the plan sponsor.

As indicated above managed options are also a good idea.  In all cases it is important that the investments carry low expense ratios.

A menu of proprietary funds from the employer of the plan’s advisor or rep is generally not a good idea as these funds are often higher in cost.  Generally a plan comprised mostly or exclusively of mutual funds from a single firm should be frowned upon, even if the funds are all from excellent fund families like Vanguard or T. Rowe Price.  No one fund family offers the best options in every asset class.

An additional item that should be considered is the company match, if any.  Obviously the larger the match the better, The reason I did not list the match above is that a company can offer a decent match in an otherwise lousy plan.  In most cases it still makes sense to defer at least enough of your salary to earn the full match as this is essentially free money.

As far as an engaged investment committee or other involvement from the organization sponsoring the plan this is critical.  I’ve worked with excellent committees even in smaller organizations. The constant here is a group that wants to offer the best plan they can for their employees and is engaged in monitoring the plan a regular basis.  Often this is done in conjunction with an independent outside financial advisor.

The above is not meant to be an exhaustive description of a good 401(k) plan, but rather to highlight some of the signs of a good 401(k) plan that I’ve seen over the years.  What features do you look for in a 401(k) plan when deciding whether and how to invest?  Please feel free to leave a comment or to contact me directly.

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401(k) Loans by the Numbers


The topic of borrowing from one’s 401(k) account is always a bit controversial.  Regardless of your view, the folks at TIAA-CREF have compiled some interesting data on 401(k) loans.

Key findings about 401(k) loans 

In their study of 401(k) loans TIAA-CREF found:

  • Getting Out of Debt – Paying off debt was cited as the top reason for taking out a loan from retirement plan savings (46 percent), yet only 26 percent of respondents said it was a good reason to take out a loan.
  • Paying for the Unexpected – The No. 2 reason overall for taking a loan was to pay for an emergency expenditure (35 percent).
  • Borrowing Against Their Savings – Nearly half (47 percent) of those who have taken out a loan from their retirement plan savings borrowed more than 20 percent of their savings, with 9 percent of respondents borrowing more than 50 percent. 

Moreover, they found that nearly One-Third of Americans Have Taken Out A Loan From Their Retirement Plan Savings and that 43 percent of those who have taken loans have taken two or more. 

401(k) loans – some statistics 

The TIAA-CREF study offered some interesting numbers regarding 401(k) loans:


 “Women were more likely than men (52 percent vs. 41 percent) to take out a loan to pay off debt; however, men were more likely (40 percent vs. 29 percent) to take out a loan to pay for an emergency expenditure. 

Nearly half (47 percent) of those who have taken out a loan from their retirement plan savings borrowed more than 20 percent of their savings, with 9 percent of respondents borrowing more than 50 percent. 

In addition to borrowing funds from retirement savings plans, many Americans are also contributing less to their plans while they are paying back the loan. More than half of respondents (57 percent) who took out loans decreased their contribution rate during the payback period. Those age 18-34 were the most likely to decrease their contribution amount (81 percent). Forty-eight percent of women kept the same contribution rate while paying back the loan, compared to only 39 percent of men.”

Questions to ask before taking a 401(k) loan 

Morningstar’s director of personal finance Christine Benz recently wrote an excellent piece 4 Key Questions to Ask When Considering a 401(k) Loan.  Christine suggested answering these four questions before deciding to take a loan from your 401(k) account:

  • Does my intended use of funds promise a higher rate of return than leaving the money be?
  • Is my job secure?
  • Can I realistically pay this back?
  • Is my retirement plan on track? 

Is a 401(k) loan right for you?

I’m generally not a fan of using your 401(k) as a piggy bank but the reality is that there can be situations where the money is needed.  Things like a medical situation, a job loss, or other dire situations might necessitate a 401(k) loan. 

In the words of TIAA-CREF Executive Vice President Teresa Hassara: 

“Too many people have struggled since the 2008 financial crisis and have looked at loans from their retirement plans as a way to ease financial stress. However, individuals should weigh all of their options carefully before borrowing from their plan savings or reducing their contributions. Loans can undermine retirement savings and cause investors to miss out on earnings from rising markets. It’s important to evaluate the benefits of taking a loan now against the need for those earnings to build long-term retirement security. Working with a financial advisor can help people make the best decision for their life stage and retirement goals.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Make sure you consider all factors in your financial situation before going the 401(k) loan route.

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Six 401(k) Investing Mistakes to Avoid


For many of us trying to save for retirement, our 401(k) plan is our main retirement savings vehicle.  Much has been written about the pros and cons of 401(k) plans, but the truth is that if utilized correctly the 401(k) is a powerful retirement savings tool.  Here are six 401(k) investing mistakes to avoid.

Not contributing enough 

Many plans will set a default salary deferral level for plan participants who don’t specify a salary deferral amount.  Often this is in the 1%-3% range.  While this is better than not contributing at all it is clearly not enough for most of us to build the retirement nest egg we will need.

A standard piece of advice is to be sure to defer a sufficient percentage of your salary to receive the maximum match from your employer.  While I concur with this advice, this doesn’t mean this amount is sufficient to accumulate the retirement nest egg you will need either.

Ignoring outside investments 

If you are early in your career your 401(k) might be your only investment account.  However if you are in mid-career or older you may have a number of accounts including your spouse’s retirement account, several old 401(k) accounts and IRA, or other investments in taxable accounts.  It is important that you view your current 401(k) as a part of your overall investment portfolio and not invest your 401(k) in a vacuum. 

Not investing appropriately for your situation 

This can take many forms.  I’ve seen numerous instances of younger investors in their 20s putting all of their contributions into their plan’s money market or stable value options.  Clearly these participants are not taking advantage of their long time frame until retirement.  It is doubtful that the returns on these investments will allow them to accumulate enough for retirement.

On the other side of the coin there were many stories of plan participants in their 50s who were too heavily invested in equities and who suffered devastating losses in 2008-2009.

The bottom line is that 401(k) investors should invest in a fashion consistent with their financial stage in life, in line with their goals and risk tolerance, in short in a fashion that is consistent with their overall financial plan. 

Over investing in company stock 

No matter how wonderful your company’s stock is investing an excessive percentage of your 401(k) dollars in company stock is risky.  Your livelihood is derived from your job so if the company has problems conceivably you could find yourself unemployed and holding a major portion of your 401(k) in the devalued stock of your now former employer.

As with any investment, having an inordinate percentage of your portfolio in any one holding is risky.  While there is no hard and fast rule, many financial advisors suggest keeping company stock to 10% or less of your overall portfolio. 

Using Target Date Funds incorrectly 

Target Date Funds are the default investing option QDIA) in many 401(k) plans for participants who don’t make an election as to how their salary deferrals are to be invested.  They are also growing in popularity by leaps and bounds as a vehicle for those participants who are uncomfortable allocating their accounts from among the other investment options offered by their plan.

TDFs can be a reasonable alternative if used correctly.  Target Date Funds are designed to be “one stop shops” so to speak.  In other words these funds are designed to be a participant’s only investment in the plan.  The idea here is that the fund will allocate your money in accordance with their glide path to and through the target date.

401(k) investors who use a Target Date Fund in conjunction with several of the other investment options in the plan run the risk of being too heavily invested in one sector or another.  If this is the path that you are choosing make sure you understand the overall allocation of your account that will result and that this is in accordance with your best interests.

Additionally investors considering Target Date Funds need to understand how the funds in the family invest and to understand that the fund with the target date nearest their anticipated retirement age may or may not be the best choice for them. 

Ignoring your 401(k) account when leaving your job 

By the time you are in your 40s you will likely have worked for several employers.  It is critical that when you leave a job that you don’t ignore your 401(k) balance.  It may make sense to leave your money in your old employer’s plan if the plan offers a menu of low cost, solid investment options.  Likewise it might make sense to roll your balance to your new employer’s plan if allowed assuming they offer a solid, low cost investment menu.  The other option to consider is rolling your account to an IRA.  This route will often allow a greater number of investment alternatives and can be a good way to consolidate this money with an existing IRA or to consolidate all of those retirement accounts you might have.

If you are retiring dealing with your old 401(k) is critical as well.  You will want to position your money in line with your needs including continued growth and any withdrawals you will be making from these funds.  If you have company stock as part of your plan don’t neglect to consider the NUA option as well.

Your 401(k) plan can be a great tool in winning the retirement gamble.  Like any investment you need to manage it to your best advantage.

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