Here’s another good reader question about crappy 401k plans. Reader Robert saves enough to max out his 401k each year if he wanted to, in addition to maxing out his Roth IRA every year which he already does. However, his 401k plan is filled with expensive actively-managed mutual funds. He has no company match. Should he contribute to his 401k anyway, or invest outside in a taxable account?
Factor #1: How Long Will You Keep Your Job?
Even if you have a bad 401k plan, remember that as soon as you leave that company, you can roll over those tax-advantaged funds into a Rollover IRA at the company of your choice! You may or may not have a good idea of how long you’ll stay there, but the fact is most of my friends have not worked at any company longer than 5 years or so.
(A few plans offer what is called in-service withdrawals, where you can roll over your 401k fund into a IRA without leaving your employer. These are rare, but it’s worth asking about.)
Factor #2: Can You Help Your HR Department Make A Change?
The reason why expensive 401k plans exist is because they tend to be cheap for the employer. Essentially, the administrative costs for running the plan are shifted to the employees. Big companies tend to have better plans because they offer enough assets for companies like Vanguard to jump in.
Still, you might be able to enact some change. Print out some material about how high plan expenses can really hurt performance and thus people’s retirements. Talk to your co-workers, and make it an worker attraction/retention issue. You may not need to switch providers, but perhaps they’ll at least offer a better option or two. I’ve even read about Congress considering a law requiring all 401k plan administrators offering at least one index fund option.
Factor #3: How Expensive Is It?
Unfortunately for Robert, he shared his available investment options along with their annual expense ratios, and they are the worst I’ve seen yet:
Blackrock Fundamental Growth C MCFGX 1.94%
Blackrock Global Allocation C MCLOX 1.88%
Blackrock Government Income Portfolio C1 BGIEX 1.53%
Blackrock International Value C MCIVX 2.60%
Blackrock Large Cap Core C MCLRX 1.97%
Blackrock Large Cap Value C MCLVX 2.00%
Blackrock Value Opportunities C MCSPX 2.34%
Davis New York Venture C NYVCX 1.71%
Evergreen Core Bond C ESBCX 1.45%
J P Morgan Dynamic Small Cap Growth C VSCCX 2.12%
Mfs Total Return C MTRCX 1.52%
It may be tempting to think “well, no matter how bad the plan is, it will still be better than a taxable account, right?” Wrong. Actually, given current tax rates, it can be better to keep your money in a taxable brokerage account than in a 401(k) plan if the options are expensive enough. Here are some quick and dirty examples.
Let’s say you put in $10,000 in a taxable account. You invest in an index fund with 0.20% expense ratio. The broad US stock market earns 8% per year. Since you get the gains minus expenses, you get 7.8% per year. You get a 15% tax hit at the end for long-term capital gains. Your final after-tax balance after 30 years is $80,906. (Yes, I’m ignoring the annual taxation of dividends for now.)
Let’s say you put in $10,000 of after-tax money in a Roth 401(k). You buy a Blackrock fund with 2% expense ratio. Again, on average, all mutual funds that invest in the broad US stock market will earn the market returns (8%) minus expenses (2%), giving you a 6% return per year. However, you have no tax hit at the end since it is a Roth. (You’d get the same result with pre-tax money in a Traditional 401k.) Your final after-tax balance is only $57,434.
The above is a very simplified comparison, but the point is that the gradual annual hit of a high expense ratio can overcome the tax break advantage. Usually this takes an expense ratio above 1% and a long time horizon.
Recap / WWMMBD
If you think that your current plan options will continue to be this bad for the next 10 years or more, and you don’t think you’ll leave your company before then, then it may indeed be better to just invest outside a 401k plan. (Keep up the IRA contributions!) However, I think that soon 401k plans will be more tightly regulated, and the trend is for plans to at least offer a few low-cost options. I know my plan seems to get a little better every year. If it were me, I’d probably suck it up and still tuck money away in the 401k in the hopes of a brighter future.