Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments


Target Date Funds: 6 Considerations Before Investing


Target Date Funds are a staple of many 401(k) plans. Most Target Date Funds are funds of mutual funds. The three largest firms in the TDF space are Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Vanguard with a combined market share of about 80 percent. All three firms use only their own funds as the underlying investments in their target-date fund offerings. Some other firms offer other formats, such as funds of exchange-traded funds, but the fund of mutual funds is still the most common structure.

Target Date Funds Investing

Here are 6 considerations to think about when deciding whether to use the Target Date Fund option in your company’s retirement savings plan:

Is the Glide Path really that important?

Much has been made of whether the Glide Path (a leveling of the fund’s equity allocation into retirement) should take investors to or through retirement. Target Date Fund providers spend a lot of time devising and administering the Glide Path that their funds use into and through your retirement years.   Before making too much of this, however, the key question is what will you do with your retirement plan dollars once you retire? TDF providers hope that you take the money invested in their Target Date Funds and roll these dollars into an IRA with them, maintaining your Target Date Fund position.  There are big dollars at stake for them.  In reality you might take your money out of the plan and do something else with it, including consolidating these funds with other retirement assets already in an IRA perhaps at another custodian.

How does the allocation of the Target Date Fund fit with your other investments? 

Many 401(k) participants invest their retirement dollars in a vacuum—meaning they don’t take their investments outside of the plan into consideration when making their investment choices. This is fine for younger workers just starting out.  Their 401(k) investment might be their only investment and the instant diversification of a Target Date Fund is fine here.

For those with other outside investments such as taxable accounts, a spouse’s retirement plan, and perhaps an IRA rolled over from old 401(k)s, this is a big mistake. Given that TDFs are funds of funds you might become over or under allocated in one or more areas and not know it as your account grows. Factoring the Target Date Fund allocation into your overall portfolio is critical. 

Is the Target Date Fund closest to your projected retirement date the right choice for you?

For example, a 2020 Target Date Fund is conceivably meant for someone who is 58 and retiring in seven years. If you were to take three 58-year-olds and look at their respective financial situations and tolerance for risk, it is likely that they are all fairly different. Plan providers need to do a better job of communicating to plan participants that the fund with the date closest to their projected retirement date may not be the right fund for their needs. Look at your own unique situation and pick the TDF that best fits your needs. 

Understand the underlying expenses

In some cases, the overall expense ratio may be a weighted average of the underlying funds. Others may also tack on a management fee to cover the costs of managing the fund. As with any investment, understand what you are being charged and what you are getting for your money. 

Target Date Funds don’t equate to low risk

Many participants are under the mistaken impression that investing in a Target Date Fund is a low risk proposition. As we saw in 2008, nothing could be further from the truth. Many investors in 2010 funds saw losses in excess of 20 percent. A recent review of more than 40 Target Date Fund families showed the share of stocks in the funds designed for those retiring in the current year ranged from about 25 percent to about 75 percent. As with any mutual fund, look under the hood and understand the level of risk that you will be assuming.

Investing in Target Date Funds doesn’t guarantee retirement success 

Contrary to the belief of some, investing in a Target Date Fund doesn’t guarantee that you will have enough saved at retirement.  Building a sufficient retirement nest egg is all about how much you save and how you invest those savings.  Target Date Funds may or may not be the best investment vehicle for your needs.

Target Date Funds can be a good vehicle for 401(k) participants and others who are not comfortable allocating their own investments. Unfortunately, TDFs are not a set it and forget it proposition. Investing in Target Date Funds requires periodic review to ensure that the fund you have chosen is still right for your situation. Retirement plan providers and sponsors also need to do a better job of communicating the benefits, pitfalls, and potential uses of these funds to plan participants.

Please feel free to contact me with questions about 401(k) investment options or about your overall financial and retirement planning needs.  

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your Target Date Fund and all 401(k) investment 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.  

Photo credit:  Flickr

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  1. Great point about not having to choose the fund that matches up with your “year of retirement”. Picking a fund that matches up with your personal goals is much more important.

  2. These are all great points. I currently have about 1/2 of my (very little) retirement nest egg in a target fund that I’ve been contemplating switching over to something else. I’ll have to take a closer look at my specific fund and see if it fits in with my overall investment portfolio.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      Jake TDFs have their good points but all too often investors “misuse” them in terms of not considering how they fit with their overall allocation. Ideally one would either invest in a mix of open funds in their 401(k) or only in the appropriate target date fund. Mixing the two can often cause an undesirable overall allocation (I’m not saying this is the case with you). The perfect TDF investor is my daughter who is in her first job out of college and invests her 403(b) in the 2055 fund. An instant diversified retirement portfolio for her at a low cost (Vanguard).

  3. Agree with all points in this article. For me, the vanguard TDF is my best access to low cost index funds within my limited options 401k plan. I will now have to use other taxable accounts to make sure my asset allocation is appropriate.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      Thanks for the comment Scott. The VG TDFs are very low cost giving them an advantage over most other TDF families.

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