Review your account once or twice a year for better results.
Your 401(k) is one of your greatest tools to save for retirement, but most 401(k)s need frequent attention, from a tuneup to a complete overhaul, to stay on track.
If like many people you haven’t checked the details of your 401(k) in a while, reviewing your account once or twice a year can lead to better results.
• Salad-bar approach
When you signed up for or subsequently revisited investments in your plan, you picked funds by selecting a little of this and a little of that without an overall plan. But doing some homework can bring a good payoff: Selecting the right investment mix and the proper funds improves your long-term outcome.
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Adjusting the allocation of holdings in your 401(k) is important to maintaining your account. If stocks generally outperform bonds over a set time, for instance, your investment allocation will drift toward an overweight in stocks, opening the door to losses if a sell-off or bear market hits stocks.
• Rebalance your account once a year.
Many 401(k)s also now offer automatic rebalancing.
• Undefined risk tolerance.
Your personal risk tolerance looms large when determining your investments’ allocation. If you ignore this factor, you may take on too much risk or not enough, directly affecting your overall returns.
• Don’t know plan basics.
You don’t have to be an expert on your 401(k); you do need a grasp of your plan’s fundamentals, such as your company’s matching contribution and if the plan offers an option to convert to a Roth 401(k). Learn who to email or speak with at your company about your plan.
Also, paying for pricier mutual funds does not necessarily mean better returns. Keeping expenses low can boost your returns and allow you to compound your money faster.
• Stagnant contribution levels.
If you never adjusted your contribution after starting for your company or haven’t revisited your contribution in a few years, look at it again. How much to contribute? Usually as much as you can, unless you already reached the maximum contribution level.
A financial planner can help you find the right size of contribution and move you beyond just to enough get your employer’s match. As you receive raises, also allocate a portion of your newly increased income to your 401(k).
• Default target date funds.
Target date funds, or TDFs, can make you complacent in investing. These funds, which slowly reduce your risk as you near your retirement, charge a premium for this convenience. Also, TDFs are tailored for the average person retiring in a specific year: They may be too risky or insufficiently aggressive for your situation.
• Cash is king.
I see so many 401(k)s where people are invested in money-market funds. Given our current low interest rates, this kind of cash sure doesn’t reign. Maybe money markets are your plan’s default option or you selected the option because you did not know what to else do.
That’s OK. Just realize that money markets or cash won’t provide returns sufficient to meet your retirement goals.
• Forgotten beneficiaries.
If you created a trust or had such life events as a divorce, update your primary beneficiaries, an often overlooked part 401(k) maintenance. If you name no beneficiaries and you die, your 401(k) asset must also go through probate, a lengthy and costly court process.
• Annuities, company stock.
I see annuities more in 403(b) plans than in 401(k)s; in either event, I dislike them for retirement plans. Annuities are usually expensive, with high surrender fees if you cash in the annuity before it matures and death benefits that are almost never used.
Owning your company’s stock is OK as long as you own a reasonable amount. A double-digit percentage holding in your 401(k), though, can lead to a variety of potential problems. If your company match is in stock, plan to sell it down to lower your overall risk.
• Piggy-bank syndrome.
Preserve your 401(k) for your retirement and don’t tap it for your vacation or emergency fund. Your 401(k) is a last resort if you need money quickly, as loans or withdrawals cut into your compounding of wealth and can trigger tax bills and penalties if you default.
• No set place in your financial plan.
You and your spouse each have a 401(k), and you both hold a few brokerage accounts, insurance policies, equity in your home, individual retirement accounts and cash in the cookie jar. How are all these work together to accomplish your financial goals?
If you don’t know, time to meet with a financial planner and get an overall view.