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A 401k Conversation is Happening Without You

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January 15, 2013

Retirement plans like the 401(k) plan are facing greater scrutiny and skepticism by nearly everyone. Are they the best way or even a good way for the average worker to save for retirement? Should they be changed to reduce risk and complexity? Should employers stop offering them altogether? These are the questions being asked; the answers depend on whom you ask.

After seeing some 401(k) accounts lose half their value, some lawmakers wondered aloud about the appropriateness of current 401(k) plans in saving for retirement. The concern is that not only do individuals lose out when their accounts take a dive during a tough market, but so does the country as a whole. These accountholders will have expenses in retirement and if they do not have enough savings in their retirement account, the government may have to help them out. The conclusion is that some change is necessary to ensure funds set aside for retirement will be there when needed.

Federal regulators are also looking to improve the 401(k) experience. Increased disclosure of
plan fees and expenses became law in 2012. Before these laws, plan participants and employer sponsors had little idea of the impact of fees on their retirement savings. By some estimates, these fees and expenses decrease retirement account balances by more than 30%. Therefore, your $250,000 retirement account may be more like $175,000 before taxes when you retire.

While lawmakers and regulators are looking for ways to improve the understanding and rightness of 401(k) plans, others have declared the plans a failure. The lack of guaranteed retirement income, some believe; make these plans poorly suited to build up savings.

The one voice missing in this debate is yours. No one is suggesting that you stop contributing to your employer sponsored or other retirement plan. To the contrary, you should contribute to any available retirement savings plan. However, you need to know the challenges these plans present. With a 401(k) plan there is a risk of losing money, sometimes a lot of money. There are also administrative and investment fees that eat away at your account balance. And these plans require you to have a sustained level of intellectual energy. In other words, the set it and forget it approach to saving should be replaced by a more attentive one.

There are a few things you can do to try to make your 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan a better retirement plan.

  • Be aware of the limitations, risks and costs of participating in these plans
  • Ask your Human Resources department if they are aware of the issues and what they are doing about them
  • Do not limit your retirement savings options to 401(k) plans only
  • Take advantage of financial advice offered by your retirement plan, an independent, fee-only advisor, and free community and online resources
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