401(k) plans can be extremely useful tools to help you save for retirement. Lately, though, they've come under fire because of their high and often hard-to-figure-out fees and their limited investment options, which turn what should be a smart savings vehicle into one that robs employees of their investment returns.
Workers have tended to blame their employers for giving them bad investments at high costs. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that when it comes to understanding the nuts and bolts of the retirement plans they offer, the bosses are just as much in the dark as workers are.
That's alarming, particularly considering that the companies that sponsor plans have a duty to their workers to look after their interests.
It's All Greek to, Well, Everyone
The GAO study found that employers have the same problems ferreting out esoteric fees that workers face.
For instance, revenue-sharing arrangements under which mutual fund companies collect fees from fund shareholders and then divert some of the fee income to plan service providers can boost the total fees that 401(k) participants pay. Moreover, because these fees are usually charged on a percentage basis, they get larger as workers save more -- even though the services provided typically remain the same.
The study referred to one employer that actually paid record-keeping fees that were 16 times greater than it believed it was paying, because it didn't understand its revenue-sharing arrangement with its services provider. In addition, some investment options, such as variable annuities and other insurance products, come with additional expenses that add to the fee burden.
Moreover, the smaller the employer, the more likely it is you'll pay higher fees.
The GAO cited figures from BrightScope saying that plans with less than $10 million in assets pay 1.9% annually for 401(k)-related services, compared to just 1.08% for plans with more than $100 million. So if you work for a tiny company, you can expect your 401(k) choices to be more expensive.
Unfortunately, the main reason employers don't know about the fees their plans incur is that they tend not to pay them. Not only do workers pay fund management costs from their investments, but service providers often take record-keeping and administrative fees directly from plan assets as well.
10 Secrets to a Secure Retirement
Your Boss Doesn't Understand Your 401(k) Plan's Fees Either
Take five ways to boost your income and five ways to reduce your expenses and debts and you have USA Today's 10 secrets to a financially secure retirement.
Click through our gallery to see the steps you should be taking, including why you should not start collecting Social Security checks at age 62 (Slide No. 5).
"The decision to retire is sometimes made for superficial reasons," Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College's Center for Retirement Research, says. She's heard many stories of older workers quitting suddenly because they had been stuck on airplanes too long during business trips. She heard of a woman recuperating from a sprained ankle who decided she really liked to watch daytime television, so she retired. Some quit because they were peeved at younger bosses. Leaving in a huff without developing a solid exit strategy, though, can be financially foolhardy.
Plenty of investors turn timid as they age, so it's no surprise that many retirees consider stocks off-limits. What they fail to realize is that an ultra-conservative portfolio stuffed with bonds and certificates of deposit can't keep up with inflation. It may be hard to imagine, given the current bloodbath on Wall Street, but over the long run, returns from stocks and stock mutual funds tend to surpass the returns on other investments. Adding stocks to a retirement portfolio can boost your returns without exposing you to reckless risk.
Those lucky enough to retire with a pension must often decide whether to take a lump sum or a lifetime of monthly checks. Grabbing that huge chunk of change all at once is exceedingly tempting, but retiring workers should consider consulting a pension actuary before making such a momentous decision.
You can start collecting Social Security checks at age 62, and most Americans go for it. But their eagerness can curtail their retirement income. If you delay Social Security past age 62, your benefits will increase significantly. Crunch your own numbers, using various retirement scenarios, by visiting the Social Security Administration's website at www.ssa.gov.
What's required to be a successful investor hasn't really changed from the days when stock prices were ripped off ticker tapes. "The whole purpose of investing for the long term is to make your money grow faster than inflation deteriorates it, " says author Lewis Schiff. "For those investors who take the long view and practice the simple arts of diversification, compound returns and dollar-cost averaging, and especially those who do so in tax-advantaged accounts, this growth is well within reach." If you're not confident in your own investing skills, consider using low-cost target retirement funds offered by big mutual fund companies. Next: 5 Ways to Reduce Expenses
People need to remember that it's after-tax returns that matter," says author Taylor Larimore. The after-tax performance of mutual funds can look shockingly different from their posted figures. During the decade that ended in 2007, for instance, Lipper estimated that fund investors lost anywhere from 17% to 44% of their returns to taxes. Many retirees woefully underestimate their tax hit because they incorrectly assume that their tax burden will plummet once their paychecks dry up. A great way to stanch the tax hemorrhaging is to invest in tax-efficient index and exchange traded funds. Next: Secret No. 2
Obviously, carrying a credit card balance is a no-no, but if you haven't managed to erase your debt, there's a painless way to tackle the problem: Call your card issuer. "If you have good credit -- a 700 FICO score or better -- you have a ton of leverage with credit card companies, which are scared and worried about their profit margins," observes author Liz Pulliam Weston. Card issuers hate losing customers, so they're generally willing to negotiate. If you enjoy good credit, you should be able to capture a rate below 10%.
No one's asking you to deny yourself a $4 latte, but if you're living beyond your means, it makes sense to root out the budget-busters. "You have to know where the money is going in order to know where to cut back," Weston says. Recording your purchases for a week can prove a tremendous help.
Investment fees are a natural enemy of retirement portfolios. But many investors are oblivious to this predator. Why? Because investors of mutual funds and annuities aren't billed for these expenses. Instead, the fees are automatically deducted. You can see for yourself the damage that even average expenses can wreak on a mutual fund by using the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's mutual fund cost calculator at www.sec.gov/investor/tools.shtml. Try sticking with mutual funds that charge an annual expense ratio of 1% or less.
Regardless of your age, take care of your health and you'll probably save money. "Eat right, exercise and care for your teeth, eyes and ears," says Henry Hebeler, the creator of AnalyzeNow.com, a financial website geared toward retirees. "By the time we get to retirement age," Hebeler adds, "health care costs are the single largest item in most of our budgets, and early prevention of health problems pays huge financial dividends."
In response to the GAO report, the Department of Labor is trying to educate employers about their responsibilities in providing retirement plans. In the end, though, it's up to you to make sure your employer's 401(k) plan makes sense for you. If the fees are too high, either ask for a change or choose other methods, such as IRAs, to save for retirement.
Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no one to blame but himself for his self-directed 401(k). You can follow him on Twitter here.