Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments


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

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)


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. 

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The Ameriprise 401(k) Lawsuit – What Does it Mean to You?


Update: In March of 2015 Ameriprise settled this suit for $27.5 million before the case was to go to trial. Kudos to St. Louis attorney Jerome Schlichter for his work on behalf of these 24,000 current and former plan participants.

A lawsuit brought by a group of current and former employees of financial services firm Ameriprise has been allowed to proceed.  The suit alleges that Ameriprise violated their fiduciary obligations as the sponsor of the 401(k) plan it offers to employees.  The main issue is that Ameriprise offered a number of its proprietary mutual funds as options in the plan; these funds were allegedly expensive compared to other non-proprietary options that could have been utilized.  Further it is alleged that these funds paid revenue sharing and other fees to Ameriprise and several of its subsidiaries.

Ameriprise 401(k) lawsuit

What does this mean to you as a 401(k) participant? 

The implications of this suit are pretty clear.  If Ameriprise is found to be guilty of breaching its Fiduciary duty by stocking their 401(k) plan with sub-par, expensive proprietary funds this moves us further along the path of accountability by retirement plan sponsors for the retirement plans offered to their employees in my opinion.

During 2012 your company (generally via its retirement plan provider) provided several disclosures regarding your 401(k) plan.  While some of these disclosures were not all that revealing (and others may have been downright cryptic) these disclosures began to “open the curtain” a bit.  In anticipation of these disclosures I am aware of several providers who improved their plan offerings as well as activity on the part of a number of plan sponsors who started to look at other platforms and providers for their organization’s 40(k) plan.

The temptation among many employees is to ignore information received about your 401(k).  Hard to blame them, much of this information is poorly written and hard to understand.  However, you would be wise to review the disclosures received and any future disclosure materials.  Do your best to become an informed plan participant.  Review the mutual funds (or other investments) offered.  Are they typically at least in the top half of their category in terms of investment performance?  Are the expenses low relative to other funds in the same fund peer group?  Could less expensive share classes of the funds offered that be considered?  This last point includes even low cost index funds that may be offered.  For example, low cost Vanguard has several share classes that are lower in cost than their basic Investor share class.

I’m not necessarily advocating that you sue your employer for offering lousy investments or for sponsoring a plan that is sub-par, but there is nothing wrong with joining together with other co-workers and presenting your concerns about the plan to your employer.  By definition a 401(k) plan and other defined contribution plans put the onus on you to save and invest for your own retirement.

What does this mean to organizations that sponsor 401(k) plans? 

To say that companies who offer 401(k) plans, consultants and advisors (like yours truly), and ERISA attorneys are watching this suit with a great deal of interest is an understatement.  Essentially this suit could say to employers that if you offer a crappy, high cost 401(k) plan with lousy investment choices it could cost you.  And you know what, with the number of lousy 401(k) plans that I’ve seen offered over the course of my career this advisor would have no sympathy for Ameriprise and those involved with their plan should they lose the suit.  Offering your own funds and receiving revenue sharing from them to boot, really?  What’s OK about that?  I wonder how much of their own money senior Ameriprise executives have in these proprietary funds.

My hope is that this suit will help motivate employers who don’t already focus on offering the best 401(k) plan possible to look at ways to improve their plan.  I am fortunate to have a group of 401(k) sponsor clients whose main concern is doing the best that they can for their employees.  Don’t get me wrong, these companies are concerned with meeting their Fiduciary obligations and managing their Fiduciary liability as a plan sponsor.  I view these goals as being very consistent with offering a top-notch plan for their employees.  From my experience a sound process to choose and monitor investments based upon an Investment Policy Statement generally results in a better result for the plan participants.  Add to this a regular review of the plan providers (record keeper, custodian, etc.) and you have the ingredients of a solidly run plan.

I wonder what Tommy Lee Jones would say to the employees if he was used as a spokesperson to “sell” the 401(k) plan internally?  

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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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 than 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.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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5 Timeless 401(k) Investing Tips


We have a looming Fiscal Cliff, we have infantile politicians bickering about it, and we have Jim Cramer screaming and ranting about whatever.  In this environment, here are my best tips for 401(k) investors (a hint these are the same tips I would have offered if this was 2011 or 2010, or most any other year):

Stick with it

During the 2008-2009 market decline, many 401(k) participants lowered their deferral rates or stopped salary deferrals altogether. Clearly those participants who stuck with their salary deferrals and their investment strategy throughout are generally happy with the results given the market’s performance over the past three years. The point is that consistent savings and sticking with a plan plays a key role in accumulating 401(k) assets for retirement over time.

Contribute as much as you can 

I’ve read many studies pertaining to retirement success.  Virtually all of them cite the amount saved over one’s working life as the single biggest factor in achieving a financially successful retirement.  At the very least make sure you are contributing enough to earn any match offered by your employer.

View your 401(k) as part of your overall portfolio

Far too many participants view their 401(k) accounts in a vacuum. The better approach is to treat this as a part of your overall portfolio. Your outside investments might include a spouse’s retirement plan, various IRAs, old 401(k) accounts left at former employers, taxable accounts, various individual stocks and bonds, and other investments such as rental property. The point is to view your 401(k) account in light your overall portfolio and allocate your holdings accordingly. 

Don’t ignore your 401(k)

There were many stories during 2008-2009 about 401(k) participants who couldn’t bear to open their account statements. Part of the reason that the participants who stuck with their plan did so much better according to a Fidelity study was due to the fact that they bought shares at lower prices during the market decline and then benefited from the ensuing rally that started in March of 2009. As painful as it is, review your account at regular intervals and rebalance when holdings fall outside the target allocation range you have set. Even better if your plan offers automatic rebalancing, take advantage of it.

Use Target-Date Funds with caution

The concept of Target Date Funds is great.  Invest in the fund with a target date closest to your projected retirement date. The manager adjusts the level of stocks as you get closer to the target date. Participants get professional management of their investments. The reality is that different funds from different families with the same target date often have widely different allocations and levels of investment risk. The quality of the underlying funds differs among various fund families. If this route seems attractive to you, it is vital that you review the Target Date Funds offered by your plan. Don’t automatically default to the fund with the target date closest to your projected retirement, rather look at the allocation of the various funds in the series and pick the one that best fits your situation. Also look under the hood at the fund’s underlying investments and be sure you understand how the fund invests your hard-earned money.  This extends to all aspects of the fund including the fund’s glide path into retirement.  Personally I like Target Date Funds for younger workers who might not have much in the way of outside investments; I’m not a fan for investors within 15 or so years of retirement.  These folks need to have a portfolio and a financial plan that are working in harmony.

Your 401(k) can be a great retirement savings vehicle. Like any other investment, it does take work to ensure that your savings are working hard for your retirement.

Please feel free to contact me with questions about your 401(k) plan and your retirement planning needs.

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Roth 401(k) vs. Traditional 401(k)


I’m excited to publish the first guest post on this blog.  Joe is a personal financial blogger posting at his site www.joetaxpayer.com.  Joe was kind enough to share his thoughts on choosing between a Traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) if your plan allows for this option.  Check out Joe’s Plutus Award winning blog for more excellent insights.

Today, let’s look at the differences between the Traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k). Similar to the Traditional IRA, the Traditional 401(k) permits you to make deposits to your account, pre-tax, and then, at retirement, withdraw money and pay tax upon withdrawal. The Roth 401(k) is similar to the Roth IRA, in that you make deposits with post-tax money, but will be able to withdraw both deposits and growth with no further taxes due after you retire.

Tax Planning Considerations

Seems pretty simple, no? Not so fast. It’s easy enough to look at your current marginal rate, which is the tax you pay on that last dollar of income. When you look at your total tax bill over your total income, you get an average rate which isn’t as useful for this analysis. The tougher thing is to know what your rate will be in retirement. Do you have a traditional pension from your current or former employer? How much have you already saved in pre-tax 401(k) accounts or Traditional IRAs? These are some of the factors you’ll need to consider when starting to think about whether to choose the Roth 401(k).

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. In 2012 a couple, married filing joint, will have a standard deduction of $11,900 along with two exemptions of $3,800 each for a total $19,500 that comes off the top when calculating their taxable income. If they itemize, they may have a Schedule A showing higher than $11,900, but that’s the minimum this year. It then takes $70,700 of taxable income to hit the top of the 15% bracket (see chart above). Just over $90,000 per year gross income and still in the 15% bracket. If you are comfortable taking 4% per year withdrawal, it would take $2,250,000 in pretax accounts to fund the $90,000 per year withdrawal.

Saving your way to a higher bracket isn’t easy, nor is it so common. It can easily occur, however, with an employer whose pension is generous, or for those whose 401(k) is heavily invested in investments that have done very well. In such situations, using the Roth 401(k), funded with after tax dollars, will keep your pretax savings from snowballing out of control, potentially putting you in a higher bracket come withdrawal time. Even if you choose the Roth, any employer deposit remains on the traditional, pretax side.

Other Considerations

Last, it’s not just about now vs. retirement. When you change jobs you should consider rolling your 401(k) money into an IRA. During the course of your life, in any year your income is below average you should take the opportunity to convert a bit of your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, reporting the conversion as income, but at a lower than average bracket.

As you approach retirement, the big picture becomes more clear, and the last years before you retire can help you balance your accounts between the Traditional 401(k)/IRA and Roth flavors of these accounts. For the working couple where one spouse has retired earlier than the other, the years where a single check is coming in is the ideal time to deposit to the Roth and to convert a bit from the Traditional accounts before the larger withdrawal start to come during full retirement living.

Check out guest author Joe’s blog www.joetaxpayer.com for more great articles like this one.

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Lousy 401(k)? – Maybe it’s You Not Them


President George W. Bush signs into law H.R. 4...

Ever since the stock market tanked in 2008-09 there have been innumerable news stories and blog posts about how the 401(k) has failed investors.  The term “201(k)” was coined to describe the losses suffered by many investors.

It is true that there are a lot of sub-par 401(k) plans out there in the marketplace.

On the other hand, I have many clients who have or are the process of amassing significant retirement nest eggs via their 401(k) plans.

Maybe it’s not fair, but the responsibility for saving for our retirement has been placed upon us by a system that has made offering a traditional defined benefit pension plan prohibitively expensive for many employers.  For better or worse the 401(k) is the main retirement savings vehicle for many of us.  Unfortunately, in many cases 401(k) participants are their own worst enemy.  Here are some common 401(k) mistakes to avoid on the path to saving for your retirement:

Ignoring it.  How many stories have we seen over the past few years about plan participants who were afraid to open their statements?  The better solution is to be proactive:  figure out an investment strategy for your retirement savings, implement that strategy, monitor your allocation, and adjust when appropriate.

Assuming that the auto enrollment percentage contribution is sufficient to meet your retirement goals.    Trust me, it isn’t.  Many plans auto enroll all new employees unless they opt out.  Generally the deferral percentage is low, 1% or 2% of compensation is common.  This might be a good start, but if you don’t increase your contributions you can likely count on a pretty dismal retirement lifestyle.

Not taking advantage of professional help.  Many people are uncomfortable making investment decisions for any number of reasons.  If you work with a financial advisor already make sure that they are providing advice on this account as well.  Many plans offer advice services that range from online to one-on-one consultations.  Some of this help is free, some carries a cost, if you are uncomfortable managing your 401(k) yourself go get the help you need.  It’s never too early to get serious about your retirement and make sure that you are on the right path.

Assuming that that a Target Date Fund is the right solutionOn the surface the Target Date Funds offered by your plan looks like the ideal solution, especially if you are uncomfortable allocating your account from among the other investment choices offered by the plan.  This has been reinforced by the use of Target Date Funds as the default option by many plans under the safe harbor provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006.  What could be easier?  You pick the target date closest to when you are likely to retire, you make your contributions, and you basically set it and forget it.

Unfortunately it’s not that easy.  Target Date Funds with identical target dates can often look quite different.  Different Target Date Fund providers may offer funds that are geared “to” retirement while others are geared to go “through” retirement.  I strongly suggest that no 401(k) participant take anything on faith here.  All one needs to do is to look back on the recent performance of shorter dated funds during severe drops in the markets.  Witness the losses suffered by many Target 2010 funds during 2008.  Look closely at the Target Date Funds offered to you.  Understand how they will invest your money and what retirement Glide Path they take.  Decide if this is the right approach for your situation.  Remember, you don’t have to investment in the fund with the target date closest to your expected retirement date, go can go with any of the funds that best fits your needs.

Investing your 401(k) account in a vacuum.  I see far too many plan participants who fail to take a total portfolio view of their 401(k) account.  By this I mean including the 401(k) along with their spouse’s retirement account, IRAs, old retirement accounts still at former employers, brokerage and mutual fund accounts, individual stocks, and other holdings as a total investment portfolio.  Not doing this can cause you to take too much or too little investment risk in your 401(k).  Beyond the 401(k) having all of these accounts not being managed in harmony is just a waste of these investment dollars.  You worked hard to accumulate these assets, make them work just as hard for you.  In short develop an investment strategy that takes all of your investment assets into account, ideally one that is based on a financial plan.

It’s easy to blame the system or other factors if you are unhappy with the performance of your 401(k).  Rather than blame anyone, there is no better time to take charge of your retirement than today.

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


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Your 401(k) Don’t Set It and Forget It


Those who follow this blog and/or follow me on various social media platforms know that I am not a huge fan of Target Date


Funds. I discuss some of these concerns in a recent post.

Beyond that, however, the whole notion of taking such a hands-off approach to investing for one’s retirement just rubs me the wrong way. I’m all for making this as easy and painless as possible for plan participants, but simply putting one’s money in a TDF can foster the idea that doing so will magically get you to where you need to be at retirement.

Retirement planning takes work. Whether you do it yourself or use a financial advisor you need to track your progress at least annually. Moreover, you need to start out with a goal. That goal should be something like I need to accumulate $x by this date. Ideally along the way you will be tracking your progress by setting interim accumulation goals. Many retirement planning software programs allow for this type of analysis.

Allocating your 401(k) account should not be done in a vacuum. Instead, make sure that your 401(k) is allocated as part of your overall portfolio. This might include a spouse’s 401(k), IRAs, taxable accounts, stock holdings, bonds, mutual funds, etc. Your overall investment strategy should be an outgrowth of your financial plan.

If you have questions about your 401(k) or any part of the financial planning process please feel free to contact me  for assistance. Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

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