In a nationwide survey of 1,000, 401(k) plan participants commissioned by Schwab Retirement Plan Services, 90% of respondents said they would think twice about taking a job if the company did not offer a 401(k) plan. Meanwhile, those surveyed said they pay more attention to 401(k) investment fees (64%) than ATM fees (60%), airline baggage fees (50%) or gym sign-up fees (49%).
However, those findings don't always mean that workers know what they're doing with their 401(k). Nearly half (47%) say that materials explaining their 401(k) plan investments are more confusing than materials explaining their health and medical benefits. That isn't helpful when roughly three in ten workers (29%) have either decreased or not made any changes to their 401(k) savings rate in the last two years as 25% have taken a loan from their 401(k) to pay for their home or to cover everyday bills.
“Most participants want 401(k) advice, but whether because of inertia or discomfort, many don’t take that first step of asking for help,” said Catherine Golladay, vice president of participant services and administration at Schwab Retirement Plan Services. “We’ve observed that when advice is built into the plan so that participants start off with it and are free to opt out if they wish, nearly 86% stick with it. That can make a big difference.”
But that simply doesn't happen in most cases. Despite the fact that nearly 59% of those surveyed by Schwab say their 401(k) is their only or largest source of retirement savings and that 91% of participants surveyed receive a company match, most aren't checking in on fees or tweaking their plans.
According to a study by Voya Financial of workers participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, one-third (33%) only save up to the amount their employer would match. Another one-in-five (20%) save an amount that was determined automatically by their employer, while a slightly smaller group (17%) contributed up to the maximum amount allowed by the plan. That's less than a third of all employees (29%) using any other method to save for retirement, which means that many are just sticking with plans that have excessive fees when they don't have to.
“By making smart investment choices you can cut your costs,” says David Walters, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant with Palisades Hudson Financial Group.The first thing you need to do is understand the fees your plan charge. The plan itself comes with fees that cover cover administrative services such as recordkeeping, accounting, legal handling and trustee services that can't really be avoided unless you change plans. Meanwhile, fees on investments within the plan are charged by each of the mutual funds under your plan's umbrella. That “expense ratio,” a portfolio management fee charged per dollar of assets in the fund, is often accompanied by transaction costs including trading fees and commissions for buying and selling funds. That doesn't inclued sales charges that are paid either when you invest in a fund or when you sell shares.
That big bundle of investment-related fees is where you can start chipping away at the costs. For one -- and this is just a good bit of standing advice -- don't let you plan shovel you into expensive funds. You're never going to make up the loss on your annual costs if you pay a whole lot up front, so stick with the cheap funds.
“Many actively managed stock funds have expense ratios north of 1% but rarely outperform the indexes consistently, so you’re unlikely to get value for your money,” Walters says. “Most index funds charge a fraction of that. Switching to low-cost index funds where appropriate can greatly reduce annual costs and in the long run can produce a bigger nest egg.”
Secondly, don't get involved with funds that charge you for purchases or sales. Walters calls those charges “close to abusive” and notes that they are easily avoided. Also, if your fund's custodian charges a flat fee for each mutual fund in your account, consider your investments wisely. For example, if your plan charges a $20 annual fee per mutual fund and you’re considering a $400 investment in a fund, you're considering throwing money away.
“That fee would drain 5% a year, at least to start,” Walters says.
However, for as many fees as mutual funds can entail, non-mutual fund investments within 401(k)s usually have fees through the roof. The fees for variable annuities, for example, are not only high, but extremely complicated. If you can't ditch them, you may have to consider a more drastic option.
Keep in mind that some employer 401(k) plans allow current employees to roll over assets to an IRA. You'll have to check with your plan's administrator to see if your company's plan allows it, but if you're switching jobs, you can roll over your 401(k) funds to a lower-cost IRA with more investment options with no consequences. In fact, if you still have money kicking around in an old employer’s 401(k), it's almost universally advised that you roll it into an IRA.
Finally, if you don't have all that many low-fee options, it may be worth talking to human resources or your plan administrator. Ideally, they should be disclosing as many fees as possible and seeking out low-cost investment options just to make their benefits packages worthwhile. In the interim, though, do not use high fees as an excuse not to save for retirement. Just stick it out until you're presented with (or find) better options.
“Saving in a tax-advantaged plan, despite the fees, is still exponentially better than not saving at all,” Walters says. “Even for smaller plans, there is no reason for fees to be out of control. While participant fees are part of the 401(k) package, understanding them and taking action can help you preserve a greater portion of your retirement savings.”