With the ever-shrinking number of defined-benefit pension plans, saving for retirement has largely become the responsibility of the employee instead of the employer. In fact, many employers have switched over to a defined-contribution plan, such as a 401k. For millions of people, a 401k is their primary retirement planning vehicle.
If you have a 401k plan, you likely have 401k questions that you should be able to ask your employer. If you’re not savvy about this type of account, here are 10 big 401k questions to ask 401k providers.
1. How Complete Is the Investment Lineup?
A well-rounded investment lineup might include the following options:
- Money-market or stable-value fund: Conservative option that concentrates on principal protection
- Fixed-income fund: Consisting of intermediate-term corporate and government bonds
- Large-cap equity fund: Broad-based fund that invests in large-cap companies
- Mid-cap equity fund: Fund that invests in middle-sized companies with higher growth potential
- Small-cap equity fund: Fund focused on small companies with high growth potential, but greater risks
- International equity fund: Fund that invests in non-U.S. stocks
A well-diversified portfolio will consist of a mix of various types of equity and income funds because they each tend to perform differently depending on the market cycle.
Find Out: 12 Secret Moves to Double Your 401k
2. When Can I Enroll?
Many companies allow you to enroll in a 401k as soon as you start your job, although some employers make you wait up to a year. Some companies automatically register you for a 401k. Don’t forget to ask about your 401k contribution limits so you’ll know the maximum amount you can save.
If you’re not eligible to contribute to your employer’s plan, consider making a tax-deductible contribution to a traditional individual retirement plan, or stowing away some retirement money in a Roth IRA. Ask your tax advisor if you’re eligible and which choice might be best for you.
3. How Do I Track My Funds?
Ask your employer about financial planning tools and online statements that can help you assess your fund’s performance. You can measure this performance in several ways.
Make sure to compare apples with apples. For instance, don’t compare a growth-stock mutual fund’s yield to a Treasury bond fund’s yield — they don’t fulfill the same role in your portfolio. Instead, measure a growth fund’s performance by using appropriate benchmarks, such as a market index that tracks growth stocks.
4. How Do I Manage My Plan?
Managing your 401k requires some work. Although your employer takes care of your portfolio’s actual transactions, record-keeping and reporting, you must decide when and how to reallocate and rebalance your assets.
Read your summary plan description and the details — such as rules, fees and procedures — about your 401k. Ask your employer for a copy of your benefit statement, which you’re entitled to at least once every 12 months. If you need something clarified, ask your employer to explain it in more detail.
5. When Do I Become Vested?
Any money you contribute to your 401k is always 100 percent yours. However, company matching funds typically vest at a rate such as 25 percent a year, or all at once after three or four years. Once you’re fully vested, the entire company match is yours to take if you leave a job.
If you’re not fully vested, you might be entitled to keep a portion of the match, or maybe none at all. Ask your employer about your 401k vesting schedule, as it can be a determining factor in deciding when to give your notice should you decide to leave a job.
6. How Good Is the 401k Matching?
There’s no set amount that employers contribute to 401k plans, but it might be along the lines of 50 cents for every dollar you contribute, up to a set maximum of perhaps 3 percent to 6 percent of your salary. In other cases, there might be a dollar limit. All of the matching money increases your income but not your tax bill, because you don’t pay taxes on matching contributions until you withdraw them in retirement.
7. What Are My Investment Options?
Your 401k investment options likely will consist of mutual funds. Your employer can provide information about the available funds, but you’ll need to do the legwork and figure out which funds are best for your situation.
Because your 401k is a long-term investment, it’s essential to choose the investments within it wisely. A general rule of thumb is to invest in products — such as stock-based mutual funds — that generate returns that historically have beaten inflation rates. Investing some of your contributions in bonds and cash can help balance the risk and volatility in the stock portion of your portfolio.
8. What Are the Fees?
All 401k plans charge asset-based fees that impact your investment return and your long-term financial goals. These fees can be hard to calculate because you don’t pay them directly — your plan subtracts them before your return is reported. Ask your employer about your plan’s fees, as the company should be able to give you a full explanation. You can also regularly review your account statement to find out how you actually paid for various services.
9. When Can I Withdraw My Money?
You might be able to withdraw money from your 401k in the event of a financial emergency. Some plans permit loans, which you repay through payroll deductions. When you borrow from your plan, you sign an actual loan agreement. The IRS allows you to borrow either the lesser of $50,000 or half the vested amount you have in the plan. According to the IRS, the following hardships qualify for a 401k loan:
- Out-of-pocket medical expenses
- Down payment or repairs on a primary home
- College tuition and related educational expenses
- Threat of mortgage foreclosure or eviction
- Burial and funeral expenses
However, your employer ultimately determines the criteria of a hardship withdrawal, so make sure you ask about it. Keep in mind that some companies allow you to make contributions for at least six months after you take a withdrawal, so find out if that’s the case with your plan.
10. Are There Any Other Options?
If you feel your company’s 401k isn’t a good one, talk to your employer about switching to another plan after you’ve done your research. You might want to ask if there’s a Roth 401k option, too. With a Roth 401k, you don’t get a tax deduction up front. However, the money that goes into your account can be withdrawn tax-free when you retire.
Don’t let the seemingly overwhelming task of sorting through 401k options stop you from participating in such a plan. Talk to your employer and ask questions so you can make an informed decision. It’s your employer’s duty to provide information on its 401k, but it’s your responsibility to ask for the information.