How Hidden 401k Fees Can Sink Your Nest Egg

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If you’ve been carefully tucking money away in a 401k plan and dreaming of the day you can retire, you may be shocked to learn that money is being withdrawn from your accounts without your knowledge.

Beware of Hidden Fees

Before you call the police, you’ll need to understand how 401k plans work. A number of administrative fees are built into and deliberately buried within the plans. Twenty years ago, the cost of administrating a 401k was the responsibility of the employer. Today that burden has shifted to the employee. It’s up to you to do the detective work to ferret out the hidden fees so you’ll know exactly what you are paying for.

The Disclosed Fees

It’s relatively easy to find the first set of fees you are paying. If your plan invests in mutual funds, look at the expense ratio, which is found in the prospectus. These fees are commonly referred to as management fees. Participants are usually familiar with them, as they are routinely disclosed by plan administrators and employers.

Mint Tip: You can evaluate expense ratios for mutual funds using the FINRA Mutual Fund Expense Analyzer and tools from the SEC.

The Hidden Fees and How to Find Them

Administration fees are the fees that most participants don’t know about. They are in addition to the management fees, but much harder to find. Here’s where to look:

1.    Transaction History. Look at your transaction history for removal of partial shares. If you see a transaction that doesn’t look familiar, you can bet that the shares are being removed as part of an administration fee. Don’t be surprised to find that the plan is routinely removing enough shares to cover a standard fee on a regular basis.

2.    ERISA filing. If you can’t find any fees in the transaction history on your account statement, ask your human resources department. Most companies, depending on size, need to report the expenses of employee benefit plans to The Department of Labor in an annual Form 5500 filing. The filings are available to the public.

3.    Employer. Don’t expect your employer to give you the answers you are really looking for. Because employers and 401k providers negotiate packages, chances are they won’t tell you all the options they had to choose from and whether or not they picked the least expensive option. The reality is that you may never know how much of your retirement money is being eaten up by fees.

The $660,000 Example

The Street recently detailed an example that shows the long term impact from fees:
“A 25-year-old employee who currently has around $25,000 in his or her retirement account, and whose annual contributions (and employer matches) total only $2,500, in a plan that is allocated 80% to stocks and 20% to bonds, could forfeit more than $660,000 by age 65 — if the plan charges excess fees totaling just 1% a year.”

Saving More Can Penalize You

Personal finance experts will tell you that the most surefire way to make sure you’ll have money for retirement is to put as much as possible into an interest earning savings account within your 401k. Makes sense, but believe it or not, your employer could be penalizing you for being a good saver! Fees are often charged as a percentage of balance. Diligent savers pay much more than people with lower balances. Shouldn’t administrative fees be the same for everyone? After all, mailing costs and administration procedures wouldn’t change based on the size of your account. However, if you have a large balance because you’ve done a good job at saving, you’ll be taking a bigger hit.

What Other Options Do You Have?

Of course if the bill doesn’t pass, or until it actually does, you should be evaluating your options. Unfortunately, you’re pretty much tied to your 401k plan since your employer provides it as an employee benefit. However, here are some things you can do:

Be sure to provide feedback to your benefits department about your 401k plan. Ask them questions and voice your concerns. After all, your 401k plan is part of your compensation package and you should take responsibility for it, just as you would for your salary and other negotiable benefits.

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

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