If you leave your job and have a 401k or 403b left behind, the common advice is to roll it over into a Rollover IRA. There are several benefits to doing so, but here are the biggies:
- You maintain the tax-deferred status of the investment. For a traditional 401k, you would still be subject to ordinary income tax upon withdrawal, but along the way it would continue to grow tax-free. If you took the money as a lump sum, you would be subject to both taxes and penalties right away (with specific exceptions).
- Increased flexibility in investments. Most 401k plans have relatively limited investment choices, but you can open up an IRA at a variety of places. You can the invest in individual stocks, different mutual funds, bonds, ETFs, annuities, or even just a bank certificate of deposit.
- Save money by paying less fees. Along the same vein, many 401ks contain mutual funds with relatively high expense ratios compared to what is available on the open market. Many would recommend switching to low-cost index funds.
- You can consolidate accounts. You can combine the Rollover IRA with your other IRAs of the same time (Roth or Traditional Pre-Tax). One less thing to manage.
- Estate Planning perks.With an IRA, you have the ability to create a “Stretch IRA”, where your child can inherit and IRA and have the distributions “stretched out” across their longer life expectancy. This allows for more time to tax-free growth.
But many of these perks get overshadowed when you have a small 401k balance. My wife has an old 401k with only $2,000 in it at Fidelity. She gets to choose from a variety of Fidelity funds, including their Spartan index funds with 0.10% expense ratios, all with no minimum investment requirements. In addition, I don’t believe she is being charged any sort of administrative fees. We haven’t rolled it over to an IRA because:
- Lonely IRA. We have no Traditional-type IRAs to merge it with at this time. We’d just be left with a $2,000 IRA.
- Flexibility? If we moved it to Vanguard with the rest of our IRAs, we would not meet the $3,000 minimum for most of the funds. The only fund we could buy would be the Vanguard STAR fund.
- No money to be saved? At most brokers, paying a commission for every trade on only $2,000 would really eat into the balance. We could move it to Zecco, which has free trades but also a $30 annual IRA fee. We can do better staying put, although if our existing investment choices were worse, finding a low-cost brokerage and switching to buying ETFs might be an option.
- Itty-bitty estate. Again for small balances, this isn’t much of a factor in my opinion. No kids, anyhow
We could also move it to her new 403b, but it also has less-than-ideal investment choices. For now, it seems like the best move is really to stay put at Fidelity until there is a better opportunity. However, I would agree that our situation is a relatively rare case.