Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan



Much has been written about the sorry state of retirement readiness in the United States.  In fact the most frequently asked question that I get is Can I Retire? 

For better or worse, the primary responsibility for accumulating sufficient assets for retirement has been placed upon our shoulders in the form of defined contribution retirement plans such as the 401(k), 403(b), etc.  The defined benefit pension plans of our parent’s generation are rapidly fading away.

It is important that you make the most of any workplace retirement plan available to you.  New required disclosures about the costs of the plan and the underlying investments were introduced in 2012 and are a good start.  However, 401(k) plans are still a mystery to many of the workers who participate in them and sadly to many of the employers sponsoring these plans.  Here are 4 signs that your 401(k) plan might be lousy.

Proprietary Funds 

By this I mean your 401(k) plan provider or a brokerage firm affiliated with the plan offering their own mutual funds.  The most extreme recent example of this is Ameriprise Financial who is being sued by a group of current and former employees for allegedly stuffing the plan offered to company employees with poor performing, high cost funds offered by Ameriprise.  To boot they are also accused of taking revenue sharing payments from these funds.

While most examples are not this egregious, it should be a red flag if your plan is stuffed with funds or annuity sub-accounts from the likes of John Hancock or Principal and they also happen to be the provider of your retirement plan.  There are often many incentives to be had by servicing brokers and other service providers to offer this type of line-up.  While they are making money off of this type of plan, such an arrangement might be costing you big-time.

Single Fund Family Line-ups 

For years the broker/registered rep community would offer a line-up filled with funds from the American Funds.  These were often the best funds that they could sell and they rightly had a good name.

Just as bad is a line-up dominated by Vanguard or T. Rowe Price funds, or any other single fund family for that matter.  Even though I highly respect both companies, no single fund family offers the best option in every asset class.

Expensive share classes 

In many cases mutual fund companies offer a variety of share classes for use by various financial advisor channels ranging from fee-only RIAs to brokers and reps seeking compensation from selling the funds.  In many cases the fund families offer several retirement plan share classes as well, again with some offering compensation to the advisor directly or to the retirement plan.

Check out the funds offered in your plan via Morningstar or elsewhere to see if there are less expensive share classes of your fund that are available.  This even extends to low cost index fund providers like Vanguard who offer share classes which carry a lower expense ratio that the basic Investor share class.

A group annuity plan

This was the traditional fare for plans offered by insurance company providers.  They are still around but if your employer’s plan is still in this format it is likely small in size or it has been in a group annuity for awhile.

A group annuity plan generally offers either mutual funds or annuity sub-accounts that are “wrapped” into a group annuity.  These are complicated and generally expensive insurance contracts that often don’t bestow any particular benefit on the plan participants.  In fact some plans carry surrender charges that make it difficult for employers to change providers.

What do I do if my 401(k) plan is lousy? 

  • If there is a company match it often makes sense to contribute enough to receive the full match.  This is free money you shouldn’t leave it on the table.
  • Do your homework and say something to those in charge of administering the company’s plan.  This may or may not result in things changing, but many employers are more sensitive to this type of input in light of the current trends toward more disclosure and transparency.
  • If your plan offers a self-directed brokerage window check this option out.  Understand the costs and any limitations involved.  Also make sure that you are comfortable choosing your own investments or that you have an advisor to assist you.
  • Focus on retirement savings vehicles available outside of your plan including an IRA, maxing out a spouse’s retirement plan (if it’s better than yours), investing in a taxable account, or a low-cost annuity (ideally one with no surrender fees).
  • Make sure not to leave your money in this plan when you leave the company, roll it over to an IRA or to a new employer’s plan.

We are increasingly responsible for our own retirement savings.  It is important that you understand how to best utilize the retirement plan offered by your employer.  A good plan can be an invaluable tool in reaching your retirement savings goals.  A lousy, expensive plan can cost you $1,000s in lost retirement savings and might be the difference between retiring in style or settling for less in your Golden Years.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30 minute retirement planning consultation and 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.   

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?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors.

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Do I Need Life Insurance in Retirement?


My fellow Baby Boomers and I have been told that life insurance is generally not needed once we retire. The thought was that we would have accumulated sufficient assets and our dependents are grown and self-sufficient.  This is great in theory, but may not hold true in practice.  Here are a few thoughts as to why you might need life insurance as you approach retirement.

Universal Life Insurance Company

An estate-planning tool

Life insurance can be used to help your heirs pay any estate taxes that might be due. At the federal level, the exemption is scheduled to fall to $1 million in 2013 and the estate tax rate is scheduled to increase. In addition there may also be estate taxes at the state level to consider. Life insurance can be used by your heirs to pay the estate taxes and allow the rest of your assets to pass to them as you intended.  There are many considerations in using life insurance as an estate planning tool, including how the policy is owned.

A bridge to “final” retirement

Retirement continues to evolve for Baby Boomers and will be different than the retirement our parents experienced. By this I mean that many of us will continue to work into what were traditionally retirement years, either because we want to stay active and connected or out of financial need (or sometimes both). Perhaps working a few more years will allow you to amass the nest egg that you need to be able to retire “cold turkey.” If you die prior to being able to accumulate enough assets, life insurance can fill the financial gap for your surviving spouse.

Assistance for a child with special needs

If you have a child or grandchild with special needs, life insurance can be a means to provide funds for his or her care after you are gone.

A means to fund charitable intentions  

You can leave a charitable bequest by making the organization the beneficiary of your life insurance policy.

A tool to help pass on a business

Life insurance can be used to fund a buy/sell or similar business succession arrangement. The life insurance proceeds can be used to buy out your heirs and to allow the business to go to the remaining owners.

If you die this business ownership interest will be a part of your estate and could be subject to estate taxes. Life insurance can be used to pay those taxes and allow the business to remain in the family if so desired.

As a supplemental retirement plan

Cash value life insurance is often touted by life insurance agents and commissioned financial representatives as a supplemental retirement savings vehicle.  They tout the ability to borrow against the policy’s cash value in retirement without having to pay the money back.  Besides potentially reducing the policy’s death benefit, you have to manage the amount borrowed.  Additionally you need to ensure that that all premiums are paid as required to ensure that you don’t trigger an unintended taxable event.

Further you really need to understand the underlying growth assumptions in the policy illustrations you will be shown.  Often the rate of growth of the underlying investments is unrealistic and this can lead to a need to fund the policy to a greater extent than you had planned while working in order to build the level of supplemental retirement assets you had intended.  While this can be a viable strategy, make sure that you understand all of the underlying assumptions before heading down this path.

Whether or not to own life insurance during retirement will be dependent upon having a risk to insure against. It can be easy to be sucked in by life insurance agents portraying it as an investment or a tax shelter. While everyone’s situation is different, in my opinion, life insurance should be viewed as a death benefit. This should drive your decision, whether this involves keeping a policy in force or purchasing a new policy.

Questions about your need for life insurance or about retirement planning in general?  Please feel free to contact me with to discuss your unique situation.

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401(k) Options When Leaving Your Job


Retirement Funds over Time

Perhaps you are retiring or perhaps you are moving on to another opportunity.  Whatever the reason, there are many things to do when leaving a job.  Don’t neglect your 401(k) plan during this process.

With a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) you typically have several options to consider upon separation.  Here is a discussion of several and the pros and cons of each.  Note this is a different issue from the decision that you may be faced with if you have a defined benefit pension plan.

Leaving your money in the old plan 

I’m generally not a fan of this approach.  Over the years I’ve worked with several clients who have had several 401(k) accounts that have been left with old employers.  All too often these accounts are neglected and add to what I call “financial clutter,” a collection of investments that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In some larger plans, participants might have access to a solid menu of low cost institutional funds.  In addition many of these plans tend to be among the cheapest in terms of administrative costs.  If this is the case with your old employer’s plan, it might make sense to leave your account there.  However, it is vital that you manage your account in terms of staying on top of changes in the investment options offered and that you reallocate and rebalance your account when applicable.

Unfortunately far too many lousy 401(k) plans are filled with high cost, underperforming investment choices and leaving your retirement dollars there may not be your best option.

Rolling your account over to an IRA 

As a financial advisor I generally suggest this route to clients who are leaving their employer and for those with a collection of old 401(k) accounts still with the plans of their former employers.  This not only allows for the consolidation of accounts which makes monitoring your portfolio easier, but as an advisor I often have access to a wider range of low cost investment options than might be available to them via their old employer’s plan.

Even for do it yourselfer investors, rolling over to an IRA is often a good idea for similar reasons.  You will want to take stock of your overall portfolio goals in light of your financial plan and determine if the firm you are using or considering to house your investments offers appropriate choices for your needs.

Rolling your account into your new employer’s plan 

If allowed by your new employer’s plan, this can be a viable option for you if you are moving to a new job.  You will want to ensure that you consult with the administrator of your new employer’s plan and follow all of their rules for moving these dollars over.

This might be a good option for you if your 401(k) balance is small and/or you don’t have significant outside investments.  It might also be a good option if your new employer has an outstanding plan on the order of what was mentioned above.

Before going this route you will want to check out your new employer’s plan.  Is the investment menu filled with solid, low cost investment options?  You want to avoid moving these dollars from a solid plan at your old employer to a sub-par plan at your new company.  Likewise you don’t want to move dollars from one lousy plan to another.

Other considerations

A fourth option is to take a distribution of some or all of the dollars in your old plan.  Given the potential tax consequences I generally don’t recommend this route.  A few additional considerations are listed below (I mention these here to build your awareness but I am not covering them in detail here.  If any of these or other situations apply to you I suggest that you consult with your financial or tax advisor for guidance.):

  • The money coming out of the plan is always taxable, except for any portion in a Roth 401(k) assuming that you have satisfied all requirements to avoid taxes on the Roth portion.
  • You will likely be subject to a penalty if you withdraw funds prior to age 59 ½ with some exceptions such as death and disability.  There is also a pretty complex method for those under age 59 ½ to withdraw funds and avoid the penalty called 72(t).
  • If your old plan offers a match there is likely a vesting schedule for their matching contributions.  Your salary deferrals are always 100% vested (meaning you have full rights to them).  Matching contributions typically become vested on a schedule such as 20% per year over five years.  You will want to know where you stand with regard to vesting anyway, but if you are close to earning another year of vesting you might consider this in the timing of your departure if this is an option and it makes sense in the context of your overall situation.
  • If your company makes annual profit sharing contributions, they might only be payable to employees who are employed as of a certain date.  As with the previous bullet point, it might behoove you to plan your departure date around this if the amount looks to be significant and it works in the context of your overall situation.
  • Another factor that might favor rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan would be your desire to convert Traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA now or in the future.  There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, however please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 70 ½ or older and still working, you are not required to take annual required minimum distributions from your 401(k) as long as you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company.  This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of options for an old 401(k) or similar retirement account when leaving your employer.  The right course of action will vary based upon your individual circumstances.  The wrong answer is to ignore this decision.

Please feel free to contact me at 847-506-9827 with questions about options for your 401(k) account and with your financial planning and investment questions.

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Financial Choices and Presidential Elections

English: James Earl "Jimmy" Carter

A fellow NAPFA fee-only financial advisor with whom I am a Facebook friend posted about the fact that this is her 9th presidential election.  I am one ahead of her (she missed voting in the 1976 election by a few months), not surprising since I believe we are close in age and coincidently both have daughters who are seniors at Northwestern University.

As I look back on these 9 elections,  notable among the choices that I regret after the fact was my very first vote for Jimmy Carter.  While a model ex-President, he is perhaps the worst President that I remember, and I vividly recall Richard Nixon as President.

This is a financial blog, not a political blog.  The connection with your personal finances is this.  Over your lifetime you will make many financial choices.  Some are thrust upon you and may be the lesser of two evils.  Examples are choices made in the wake of a job loss or a serious medical situation.

Those situations aside, we have the opportunity to make any number of financial choices during our lives.  Let me suggest a few choices that you should consider:

Choose to spend less than you earn.  This is intuitive, but not always followed.  This is the foundation of any serious financial planning. 

Choose to buy to less house than you might be able to afford.  As we have seen stretching financially to purchase real estate is not always a great idea.

Choose to contribute as much as you can to your 401(k) or other company retirement plan.

If you’re self-employed, choose to start a retirement plan as soon as possible.

Choose to invest in a fashion that balances your tolerance for risk but still allows for sufficient growth to achieve your financial goals.

Choose to set realistic financial goals.  To be clear, goals need to be quantified and have a time frame associated with them.

Choose to track your progress toward meeting your financial goals on a regular basis and to make adjustments in your savings, investments, and your goals as needed.

Choose to hire a competent professional financial advisor if you need help.

Whoever you choose to vote for on Tuesday, over time you might remain convinced that you made the right choice or you might come to regret your choice.  Over your lifetime your will have a number of financial choices to make.  Be sure that your choices are informed and that they make sense both now and down the road.  While a vote that you later regret is frustrating, poor choices with your money can haunt you for the rest of your life. 

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

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401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds


About two years ago I wrote what remains one of the most popular posts on this blog American Funds-The Secret Sauce for 401(k) Plans.  The point of the article was to look at 401(k) plans sold by many commission-based advisors to smaller employers consisting solely of mutual funds from the American Funds as investment options.

Mutual Funds

In light of the new disclosure requirements which will shed light on the costs associated with the investment options offered in 401(k) plans I wanted to take a look at how the various share classes offered by the American Funds for retirement plans would stack up under the portion of the required disclosures that deal with the costs and performance of the plan’s investment options.

The one American Funds option that I use in a couple of 401(k) plans is the EuroPacific Growth fund.  This fund is a core large cap foreign stock fund.  It generally has some emerging markets holdings, but most of the fund is comprised of foreign equities from developed countries.  I am able to use the R6 share class, the least expensive of the retirement plan share classes.  Let’s look at how the various share classes would stack up in the disclosure format:

Share Class


Expense Ratio

Expenses per $1,000 invested

Trailing 1 year return

Trailing 3 year return

Trailing 5 year return











































3 and 5 year returns are annualized.  Source:  Fi360   Data as of 3/31/2012

Note the 3 and 5 year returns for the R6 share class are estimated by Morningstar as this share class just came into being in 2009.  On an actual participant disclosure report the 3 and 5 year numbers would be left blank. 

While the chart above pertains only to the EuroPacific Growth fund, looking at the six retirement plan share classes for any of the American Funds products would offer similar relative results.   

The underlying portfolios and the management team are identical for each share class.  The difference lies in the expense ratio of each share class.  This is driven by the 12b-1 fees associated with the different share classes.  This fee is part of the expense ratio and is generally used all or in part to compensate the advisor on the plan.  In this case these would generally be registered reps, brokers, and insurance agents.  The 12b-1 fee can also revert to the plan to lower expenses.  In past years we have used the R4 shares of this fund and the 12b-1 fee went to lower the expenses for those participants investing in the fund.  The 12b-1 fees by share class are:

R1                   1.00%

R2                   0.75%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

The R1, R2, and R3 shares are generally used in plans where the 12b-1 fees are used to compensate a financial sales person.  This is fine as long as that sales person is providing a real service for their compensation and is not just being paid to place the business.

Plan sponsors (the employers sponsoring the plan) were supposed to receive disclosures from all covered service providers who receive any compensation from plan assets by July 1 which detail their compensation, the source(s) of their compensation, and the services they are providing to the plan.  It is my hope that any plan sponsor who looks at a disclosure from any financial advisor who has their plan in R1, R2, or R3 shares does a thorough round of due diligence to find out why their participants are in these expensive shares and what services the advisor is providing to justify receiving these hefty fees.

If you are a plan participant and you notice that your plan has one or more American Funds choices in the R1, R2, or R3 share classes, in my opinion you have a lousy plan and you are overpaying for funds that are generally mediocre to poor performers.  It is incumbent upon you to ask your employer if the plan can move to lower cost shares or even a different provider.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute retirement planning consultation and to discuss all of your investing, 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?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors.




Photo credit:  Simon Cunningham
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The GM Pension Do Over – Cadillac or Chevy?

COLMA, CA - NOVEMBER 09:  Signs advertising di...

As you may have seen in the news, General Motors is offering some of its former employees what amounts to a pension do over.  I met with one of these former employees recently to discuss this offer in the context of potentially doing a financial plan for him and his wife.

He has been retired from GM for several years and has been drawing a monthly benefit.  He was recently offered three options:

  • Keep his current monthly benefit.
  • Take a lump-sum distribution.
  • Change his monthly benefit to one of two new options that would involve annuities via Prudential.

For the prospective client this was the “life event” that prompted him to come and meet with me.  In his case, their overall financial situation allows them to fully consider all three options.

As you are likely aware, GM’s motivation for offering this program is to remove the liability for their future benefits from the GM balance sheet.  Let’s briefly look at the three options.

Stay with their current monthly benefit.  In this case the prospective client took an annuity payment with a 65% benefit for his wife should he predecease her.  His current benefit is lower than either of the two new annuity options that are offered via Prudential.  However, regardless of his choice, the liability for providing the monthly benefit is shifted from GM to Prudential.  This means the beneficiary is now relying on the full faith and credit of Prudential.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as Prudential seems to be a solid company.  The skeptics among you might say that so was AIG (or at least they were perceived as such) prior to 2008.  The other consideration is that by moving to the Prudential option one would lose any PBGC (the government organization that insures pension benefits) protection should GM encounter financial difficulties in the future.  Should Prudential encounter financial problems beneficiaries would need to rely on the resources of various state insurance departments, this may be perceived as iffy in these tenuous times for many states.

Move to the new higher Prudential Payouts.  As mentioned above, there are two payout options.  One offers a 50% benefit to his wife should he die first, the other offers a 75% benefit.  The monthly benefit is higher for the first option; both options offer a higher monthly benefit than his current benefit via GM.  Not all retirees are eligible for these additional options, however.  Regardless of his choice, the liability for all future monthly annuity payments will be shifted to Prudential.

Take a lump-sum distribution.  This option allows you to take the lump-sum value of your pension benefit as a distribution.  For most people considering this option the best move would be to roll this amount over to an IRA account in order to preserve the tax-deferred status of the money.  A distribution in cash would trigger taxes and could be quite costly.  This option allows you the ability to manage this money and the distributions.  This can be a good option for those do it yourselfers who are comfortable doing this and for those who work with a trusted financial advisor.  One downside is the loss of the guaranteed income that comes with any of the annuity payout options.

In the case of my perspective client and in the case of many, this decision will be made in the context of their overall financial situation.  My perspective client has other financial resources and his wife plans to continue her professional career for the foreseeable future.  Their current income is fairly high and they have the ability to continue to accumulate retirement assets for several more years.

Others faced with this decision may be in different circumstances which they will need to consider in making this choice, in addition to the features of the choices themselves.

The broader implications of this move by GM may be seen down the road.  Pension costs are a major financial burden for many companies large and small.  The GM pensions were part of the very rich benefits packages won over the years by the auto unions and are very costly to GM on their own.  Current historically low-interest rates work against the funding status of the pension liabilities of domestic organizations offering defined benefit pension plans, both active and those with frozen benefit levels.  These lower interest rates result in higher required pension contributions, a drain on corporate profits and cash flow.  In the case of public pensions this is a tremendous drain on the state and local coffers as we’ve seen here in Illinois.  If this GM move is successful I suspect other companies will follow GM’s lead.  Many other retirees currently receiving pension benefits may find themselves faced with a similar choice to make.

If you need help evaluating your pension options or with financial planning for your retirement please feel free to contact me to discuss your situation.


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Hellish Retirement Plans

Pensions protest 2006


Forbes.com recently published an article “Retirement Plans from Hell” which did a nice job of bringing to light the excessive charges incurred by many retirement plans using an insurance company group annuity platform. This article brought to mind a consulting engagement several years ago with a local non-profit. The organization had a $9 million 401(k) plan and a $27 million pension plan both with a major insurance organization.

I was able to identify over $100,000 in annual recurring cost reductions for this organization (mostly in the 401(k) plan) resulting from hidden asset charges on the investments. This $100,000 was coming directly out of the accounts of the participants resulting in lower returns on their investments.

The article and this consulting engagement made me think about the impact of these types of group annuity plans and other expensive bundled 401(k) plans on the financial well-being of the participants.

In the Forbes article, one plan was paying a 1.25% contract charge to AIG for their services relating to the 401(k) plan, this likely included administration and other services. Still the 1.25% would be on the high side in my experience. Understand that these fees are on top of any mutual fund or sub-account expenses.

You might say so what? The so what is that on $10,000 an extra 1.25% in annual return over 10 years translates into $1,323. The numbers become even more significant on larger balances and higher levels of excessive fees.

If you are a participant in one of these “…Plans from Hell…” what are your options? Here are a few thoughts:

Invest only in the best funds available in the plan. Even the worst plans typically have a couple of funds that are good, or at least decent. If you have investments outside of the plan, you might consider investing exclusively in these few good funds within the plan and using your outside accounts to balance out your overall portfolio allocation.

Contribute at least enough to earn the company match. If your company offers a match you should contribute at least enough to receive the full match. If, for example, the match is 3% on the first 6% contributed, this is a 50% return right off the bat. Not too many investments offer this type of return.

Bite the bullet and contribute the maximum that you can afford. As poor as the plan options might be, as high cost as the plan may be, many studies indicate that the most important factor in saving for retirement is the amount contributed. Even the worst plan offers the opportunity for regular automatic salary deferral on a pre-tax basis. You might consider outside options as a total or partial alternative such as an IRA or a low cost annuity. If you go this route, please make sure that you contribute on a regular basis which is not always as easy as it sounds in the face of competing financial obligations.

In considering whether any or all of the above options are right for you should consider your own unique financial situation and consult with your personal financial or tax advisor.

Voice your concerns to the plan administrator at your company. If your plan is through an insurance company, you are likely being charged several layers of fees on an ongoing basis and may also be subject to onerous surrender charges if you to exit the plan too early. Do your best to find out ALL of the fees involved. If you feel that they are too high and the investment menu isn’t what it should be, complain to your plan administrator or your benefits department. I tend to give companies the benefit of the doubt that they want to do the right thing for their employees and that they are in this sub-par plan arrangement because they don’t understand all of the aspects of 401(k) plans. You may or may not be able to effect change via your complaints, but if the company hears it enough they may take action. Proposed legislation forcing greater fee transparency may also prod companies to take action.

As part of your strategy, send a copy of the Forbes article (see the link below) to the plan administrator and ask them if the points mentioned in the article apply to your plan.

Even if your plan is not offered through an insurance company group annuity, here are some additional questions to pose to your company’s plan administrator

How were the investments in the plan selected?

How often are they monitored?

Are the investments monitored against industry benchmarks?

How do the plan’s overall expenses compare with industry averages for plans of a similar size range?

When posing these questions to your company’s plan administrator common sense and tact should prevail in terms of how these questions are asked.

Here is a link to the Forbes article mentioned above:


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

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?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your 401(k) plan options 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.

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