Should I Still Contribute to a Bad 401(k) Plan?

Along with other factors, new fee disclosure requirements for 401(k) plans have brought a lot of attention recently on “bad” 401(k) plans. These are plans with little or no employer match, higher-than-average fees, and/or limited investment choices.

I’ve gotten a few questions from readers who wonder if they should stop contributed to their subpar plans completely? As with most things, the answer depends. But here are some factors that I’d consider first.

Can You Save Better Elsewhere?
Depending on your situation, it may be better to put money away in other tax-advantaged vehicles like a Traditional or Roth IRA instead of your 401k/403b/similar plan. If you plan on socking away $5,000 a year, that is under the IRA annual contribution limits. Alternatively, if you have self-employment income you can look into a SEP-IRA, SIMPLE IRA, or Self-Employed 401k plan where you can choose the custodian.

Bad 401(k) Now, Awesome Rollover IRA Later?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median employee tenure is less than 5 years. Even workers in “management, professional, and related occupations” had median tenures of 5.5 years. In other words, these days people don’t stay in their jobs very long. (Of course, some people may stay in their jobs for 30 years.)

When you switch jobs, you’re free from the bonds of your crappy 401k plan and can roll it over to a new provider with low fees and great investment options. Very few plans are so bad that you wouldn’t endure five years of mediocrity in exchange for 20-50+ years of precious tax advantages.

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MMB Retirement Portfolio Update – June 2013

Here’s a mid-2013 update of our retirement portfolio, including employer 401(k) plans, self-employed retirement plans, Traditional and Roth IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings. Cash reserves (emergency fund), college savings accounts, experimental portfolios, and day-to-day cash balances are excluded. The purpose of this portfolio is to eventually create income and enable financial freedom.

Target Asset Allocation

Since my last update, I made a minor change to our target asset allocation by removing Emerging Markets as a separate added weighting as it now includes some huge companies and comprises nearly 20% of the Total World ex-US (Total International) asset class.


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Non-Traditional Retirements, or DIY Sabbaticals

NPR Morning Edition featured a story today about non-traditional retirements: Seeing The (Northern) Light: A Temporary Arctic Retirement. Instead of waiting until 65, Winston Chen decided to stop working for an entire year mid-career and moved his family to a small Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with only 180 residents.

The whole family got to do many things they’d never do otherwise. Financially, they offset their mortgage by renting out their Boston home completely as-is for a year to another family on a temporary work assignment. His wife Kristin was able to get a job teaching elementary school in Norway for a year, as it was a remote area that needed teachers. They could keep expenses low as the tiny village had no need for a car, no malls, and no restaurants. One of his pursuits ended up being an iPhone app that took off and now supports their entire family, although that wasn’t the goal.

The inspiration came from the TEDtalk “The power of time off” by designer Stefan Sagmeister. Here’s a screenshot (sorry for the poor quality) illustrating the traditional working timeline: learn for 25 years, work for 40 years, then retire for 25 years.

A commenter pointed out that this shows that our society seems to feel that education is for the young, work is for the middle-aged, and leisure is for the elderly. But what if you decided to snip 5 years from those retirement years and sprinkle them between your working years? This is essentially the idea of sabbaticals, usually associated with tenured professors taking a paid year off from their usual teaching and research duties. Every 7 years, Sagmeister completely shuts down his popular design shop for an entire year.

Both Sagmeister and Winston Chen add that if you do this, you shouldn’t just give yourself a year of nothing and expect to figure it out along the way. At the minimum, you should make a list of all the things that you want to try and/or accomplish (Chen’s included oil painting, photography, reading, learning Norwegian, and learning how to play the ukulele). Both broke it down into a daily schedule as well (Chen’s is below).

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How Our Interests Change As Get We Closer To Retirement

Stephen Wolfram, of Mathematica and WolframAlpha fame, used his natural language analysis tools to crunch through a huge set of Facebook data. The results are some interesting visualizations, including a series of charts about how the popularity of a topic varies with age. For example, both men (blue) and women (red) post increasingly more about career and money topics between ages 15 and 30. After that, interest levels stay pretty much constant for the next 30 years. I suppose it’s because virtually all of us are still working until then. :(

Here’s the chart for family and friends; I wonder if the drop in the 20s is due to a focus on finding a partner? Other than that, the gap between men and women seems pretty constant.

A growing gender differential occurs in terms of health-related topics. No wonder us guys don’t live as long. ;)

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Your Entire Financial Life in One Deceptively Simple Chart

Time for fun with charts! A famous chart in the early retirement community is The Crossover Point from the book Your Money or Your Life, which shows that you’ve reached financial independence when your investment income equals your monthly expenses:

Fellow blogger Adrian of 7million7years also shared a related chart from Chris Han of Quora, where wealth is the shaded area between your income and expenses:

Specifically, if you plotted all your income and expenses over time, the shaded area between would the amount you’ve saved your entire financial life. Bigger shaded area, bigger nest egg.

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Fidelity Freedom Funds Review: Avoid High Cost Target Date Retirement Funds

Updated and revised. Fidelity Investments does a lot of things well, but their Fidelity Freedom series of target-date retirement funds is not one of them. I’ve been warning people about these funds since 2006, although recently they’ve been getting some heat due to their overall underperformance. Assets in the Freedom funds have been dropping, while the assets in Vanguard’s Target Retirement funds have been increasing quickly. Here’s why the underperformance is not about the glide path, but about the structure and fees.

This post is a bit long, so here’s a roadmap of what I’m going to try and show:

(1) The goal of owning actively-managed mutual funds is to beat their passive benchmark. Pick the winners and not the losers. The problem is that Fidelity Freedom funds hold so many different funds with overlapping holdings, that in the end they basically own everything. It’s exceedingly difficult for them to accomplish such outperformance. Thus, over time their performance before fees is likely to simply match that of their benchmark.

(2) Due to their higher expenses, this means that their net performance after fees (what investors actually get) will be very likely to underperform the their benchmark. Over long periods of time, the amount of underperformance will closely match the amount of management fees charged.

(3) This expected underperformance is confirmed by looking at their historical performance over the past 3, 5, and 10 years.

(4) Instead, investors should look for low-cost index funds to replicate the benchmark give the best chance of higher performance. Options are explored.

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My Money Blog Retirement Portfolio Update – January 2013

Here’s a belated 2012 year-end update of our investment portfolio, including employer 401(k) plans, self-employed retirement plans, Traditional and Roth IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings. Cash reserves (emergency fund), college savings accounts, experimental portfolios, and day-to-day cash balances are excluded. This is the portfolio that we are depending on to create income and thus financial freedom.

Asset Allocation & Holdings

Here is my current actual asset allocation:

The overall target asset allocation remains the same:
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Would Meeting Your Future Self Make You Save More?

Behavioral economists are constantly trying to find ways to convince us do the “right” things like save for retirement. Why is it so hard to give up short-term perks for larger, long-term rewards? For example, take my True Cost of Holiday Shopping calculator and this Warren Buffett anecdote from a 2011 WSJ article:

Warren Buffett is one rare—and extreme—example. When he was a young man, according to Alice Schroeder’s biography “The Snowball,” Mr. Buffett often asked, “Do I really want to spend $300,000 for this haircut?” He was thinking about the vast amount of money he wouldn’t have decades in the future because of the small outlay he might make in the present.

I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t think like that. (It appears he did get haircuts at least once in a while.) According to Stanford researchers, one big reason is because we struggle to identify with our future selves. The researchers are quoted in this Wired article:

To people estranged from their future selves, saving is like a choice between spending money today or giving it to a stranger years from now.

In their study, they used advanced virtual reality goggles make some people see older versions of themselves. Afterwards, the test subjects who saw their elderly avatars stated they would save twice as much as those who didn’t. Merrill Edge, the brokerage arm of Bank of America, has created an online version of this aging process called Face Retirement. It takes your picture via webcam and ages your face to help you better visualize “old” you. I got to see myself at age 47 to 107, in 10-year increments.

Will it work? I’m not sure. My wife says I just look like a zombie, especially at 107. Maybe there would be more shock value if it showed me eating dog food or something.

2013 401k, 403b, 457, TSP Contribution Limit Increases – Historical Chart

The IRS recently announced increased contribution limits for various qualified retirement plans for tax year 2013. The limitations are indexed to increases in cost-of-living (inflation) as per section 415 of the tax code. In particular, the elective deferral (contribution) limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is increased from $17,000 to $17,500. However, the additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50 and higher remains $5,500.

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the $17,000 elective deferral limit. (Although technically the total annual defined contribution limit is $51,000 for 2013… let me know if you have an employer that is so generous!) Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

Here’s a historical chart and table of recent contribution limit increases:

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2013 IRA Contribution Limit Increases – Historical Chart

The IRS recently announced the Traditional and Roth IRA contribution limits for tax year 2013. The limitations are indexed to inflation, but only in $500 increments (as of 2010) which are triggered when the cost-of-living calculation reaches a certain threshold. The threshold was finally met, so the limit on annual contributions to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) increases to $5,500, up from $5,000. However, the additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50 and higher remains $1,000.

The limits are the same for both Roth and Traditional IRAs, but each one has their own unique set of eligibility requirements. IRAs are “individual” accounts by definition, so the limits are per person. The deadline for 2012 tax year contributions is the same as the 2012 tax return filing deadline: Monday, April 15, 2013. Tax return extensions won’t apply to this cutoff.

Since I like visual aides, here’s a historical chart and table of recent contribution limits. I’m proud to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Have you been taking advantage of your potential IRA tax break?

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Retirement Rule of Thumb #537: Age-Based Targets at 35, 45, and 55

Here’s yet another retirement rule-of-thumb, this time by Fidelity Investments.

[...] the average worker may replace 85 percent of his pre-retirement income by saving at least 8 times his ending salary. In order to reach the 8X level by age 67, Fidelity suggests workers have saved about 1 times their salary at age 35, 3 times at age 45, and 5 times at age 55.

As usual, these number are based on a long list of assumptions. Start saving at age 25, retire at 67, nice gradual income growth, nice gradual portfolio growth, and so on:

The company’s 8X savings guideline is based on a hypothetical worker saving in a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k), beginning at age 25, working and saving continuously until 67, and living until 92.

• The employee will make continuous annual salary contributions to a workplace plan beginning at 6 percent and escalating 1 percent per year until 12 percent, plus receive an ongoing 3 percent annual employer contribution during their career.
• The calculation assumes a lifetime hypothetical average annual portfolio growth rate of 5.5 percent.
• Social Security payments are factored into the replacement income ratio of 85 percent.
• The employee’s income grows by 1.5 percent per year over general inflation with no breaks in employment or savings.

Focusing on the positive, these age-based targets are meant to be more helpful when setting goals than big, scary numbers. Also, these rules reinforce the idea that starting early is very important as it gives compounding time to work.

But again, we see the same-old assumption that you will constantly spend a certain % of your working income. Why? The implicit acceptance that spending should be linked to salary keeps you from ever getting ahead. Think about it; Your spending can be completely independent of salary. Instead, you earn more, you spend more, and the hamster wheel goes ’round and ’round:

Image credit to and FOEI.

The reason why I write is that working 40+ hours a week for 40+ years is unacceptable to me. Retirement rules should be based on your spending, not salary. Salary is important, but your spending determines how much money you need to save. Your spending is also much more under your control than most people admit. 25 times your annual spending; That’s my guidepost.

Schwab vs. Vanguard ETF Expense Ratio Comparison

Schwab recently announced lowered expenses on all of their 15 Schwab-branded ETFs, undercutting everyone else’s comparable ETFs in every category, including Vanguard. Quite a bold move! Here is a limited comparison of comparable Vanguard and Schwab ETFs. The asset classes are picked to include the common asset classes as mentioned in many passive investing books and articles, but admittedly biased towards the ones that I like to use in my own portfolio. This way, I can also note which asset classes are not covered.

Briefly, an expense ratio of 0.01% means that on $10,000 invested you would be charged $1 a year in fees. The fees are taken out of the ETF’s share price, or net asset value (NAV), a tiny bit each day. So a difference of 0.03% (3 basis points) on a $10,000 investment would add up to just $3 per year.

Asset Class Schwab ETF
New Expense Ratio Vanguard ETF
Expense Ratio
Broad US Stock Market SCHB 0.04% VTI 0.06%
Broad International Stock Market - - VXUS 0.18%
Developed International Stock Market SCHF 0.09% VEA 0.12%
Emerging Markets SCHE 0.15% VWO 0.20%
REIT (Real Estate) SCHH 0.07% VNQ 0.10%
Broad US Bond Market SCHZ 0.05% BND 0.10%
US Treasury Bonds – Short-Term SCHO 0.08% VGSH 0.14%
US Treasury Bonds – Intermediate-Term SCHR 0.10% VGIT 0.14%
US Treasury Bonds – Long-Term - - VGLT 0.14%
TIPS / Inflation-Linked Bonds SCHP 0.07% - -

My comparison differs from the Schwab-provided version in the area of Treasury ETFs, with what I think are more appropriate Vanguard pairings. As Vanguard does not have a TIPS ETF, I should note that the Schwab TIPS ETF compares favorably to the popular iShares TIPS ETF (ticker TIP) with an expense ratio of 0.20%.

If you already have your money with Schwab, this is great news and a good sign for the future that they are committed to building up some decent-sized assets and trading volume on their ETFs. (Vanguard’s higher asset sizes and volumes mean lower bid/ask spreads and smaller NAV deviations, resulting in lower overall trading costs.) In a Schwab brokerage account, you can trade Schwab ETFs commission-free.

However, if you’re already investing with Vanguard, I don’t think these small expense ratio differences are enough to warrant moving assets especially if you have unrealized capital gains. (You can also trade all Vanguard ETFs commission-free inside a Vanguard brokerage account, and also many of them free at TD Ameritrade.) Vanguard has a long-standing commitment to “at-cost” investing and passing their savings onto the retail investor. In contrast, Schwab is almost certainly losing money on many of these ETFs, and thus using the low expense ratios as a temporary loss-leader “sale” to attract assets. For example, their bond ETF (SCHZ) currently has $316.5 million in assets and thus only generates around $158,000 a year in fees. That’s probably less than one employee salary at Schwab. In other words, I don’t think a substantial savings margin is sustainable over the horizon of many decades. I’d still recommend Vanguard for new investors, especially as Vanguard also has cheaper stock commissions for outside ETFs and individual stocks ($7 or less vs. $8.95).

A good point brought up in the Bogleheads forum is the ability of some people to gain access to these Schwab ETFs in their 401(k) retirement plans through the Schwab Personal Choice Retirement Account® (PCRA). If your retirement plan offers such a brokerage window, you may be able to trade these cheap Schwab ETFs for free with your tax-deferred money. Most PCRAs charge an annual fee of around $30-$50. Unfortunately, I found out that due to silly regulations, if you have a 403(b) plan your PCRA account is limited only to mutual funds. However, Schwab does have a small selection of low-cost index mutual funds as well.