Like many financial advisors I generally suggest to most clients that they maximize their contributions to their company’s retirement plan. But what if your organization’s plan is lousy? Lousy could mean poor investment choices, high expenses, or low or no company contributions.
Here are a few tips to help you make the best of a lackluster 401(k) plan:
Find the best funds in the plan
Even in the worst plans that I’ve seen there are usually a couple of funds that are decent. Consider focusing your investments in those few funds. It is always important to consider outside investments when allocating your 401(k), but in this situation its absolutely critical. You will need to allocate outside accounts such as a spouse’s retirement plan, IRAs, and brokerage accounts in harmony with your 401(k) to ensure that your overall portfolio is properly allocated. You will also need to take this total portfolio approach when rebalancing.
Consider the Self-Directed Brokerage option if offered
A number of 401(k) plans offer a self-directed brokerage window for employees who want to invest in areas beyond the basic investment menu offered. These programs vary widely and the percentage of plans offering them is relatively low. If this option is available to you make sure that you understand all of the costs and the rules associated with this program. More importantly make sure that you are comfortable managing your own investments. For those who work with a financial advisor this can be a great alternative as well, I’ve utilized these options with great success over the years with several clients.
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 your salary deferrals up to 6 percent of your salary, that’s an instant 50 percent “return” on your money. That’s hard to beat. It’s also free money; don’t leave it on the table.
Focus on the overall amount that you need to save annually
Part of the financial plan that you hopefully have in place should deal with the amount that you will need to save annually to meet your retirement goals. Your 401(k) is a piece of the puzzle but there are other vehicles that might be available to you.
Contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)
Everyone with sufficient earned income can contribute $5,000 for 2012 ($6,000 if you’re age 50 or over) to an IRA. For 2013 these limits increase by $500. For traditional IRAs, the ability to deduct your contributions on your tax return will depend upon your income. Likewise, with a Roth IRA there are income ceilings that determine whether you can make a Roth contribution. With an after-tax IRA, contributions are made with after-tax dollars but all gains on the underlying investments grow tax-deferred. Good records are needed here as a portion of future withdrawals will be attributed to your contributions and will not be taxed; however a portion will also be attributed to gains in the account and will be subject to taxes.
Take advantage of other retirement savings options
If your spouse’s company offers a better plan, try to maximize your contributions to that plan first. Remember to first take full advantage of any matches offered by your company’s 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 plan, a SEP IRA, and a Solo 401(k).
Discuss your concerns with your company
Do your homework and outline your concerns with your employer’s plan. With new 401(k) disclosures that were issued to you earlier in the year you are now armed with more information about the plan, its holdings, and the underlying expenses than was available to you in the past. These disclosures have made the issue of plan expenses a key topic for many plan sponsors, your plan administrator may be more receptive to your input than you might realize. Of course, common sense and civility should prevail when bringing concerns to the company’s attention.
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