The Inventor of the 401K Has Second Thoughts About Your Retirement Plan — Now What?


In the early 1980s, the 401K plan was introduced as a potential supplement to the pension plans offered by employers. Now, they are a staple of retirement planning, while pensions are available to fewer workers than ever before.

A 401K allows workers to set aside a certain amount of their salary and invest into a variety of mutual funds. Often, companies will match contributions up to a certain amount. These plans can be powerful vehicles for amassing great wealth in retirement, but the founders of these plans recently voiced concerns that the plans are inadequate for many people, and that they were never meant to replace pensions altogether.

For sure, 401K plans place more of the savings burden and risk onto the individual than pensions do. And many plans are lousy, with high fees and poor investment choices. So, what to do? Here's how to build that big retirement fund even when you're at the mercy of the 401K.

1. Save Up to the Match, Regardless

You may be annoyed that a 401K is all your employer has to offer, but if the company is offering to match contributions, you'd be a fool not to participate. Even if the plan has lousy mutual funds with high fees, free money is still free money. Most good companies offer at least 50 cents for every dollar you contribute up to a certain amount, and that can add up to a lot of dough over time.

2. Get an IRA

A 401K is not the only vehicle for saving for retirement. Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, offer some good tax advantages and better flexibility than a 401K. There's no company match for an IRA, but you have the ability to invest in just about anything. That's why many investors will put money in a 401K up to the company match, then put any additional savings in IRAs. Most people can contribute $5,500 annually into an IRA. With a traditional IRA, any money you contribute is deducted from your taxable income. With a Roth IRA, your money is taxed right away but you don't have to pay tax on any gains when you withdraw the money at retirement.

3. Start Early and Have a Long Time Horizon

Despite the flaws of a 401K, it's still very possible to amass a large sum for retirement if you begin investing when you are young and keep it up for a long time. If you enter the workforce when you're 18 and keep saving and investing until retirement age, that means you'll have 45 years to allow your nest egg to grow. In fact, under this scenario, it's possible to retire a millionaire by putting aside less than a few hundred dollars per month.

4. Find the Low-Cost Funds

Even if your 401K plan isn't perfect, you owe it to yourself not to make matters worse by investing in bad funds. Many 401K plans offer mutual funds with high management fees and other expenses, but most also offer low-cost options, including basic S&P 500 Index funds. Find those funds with the lowest fees, so you get to keep more of your money. Look for funds with expense ratios below 0.5%, if possible.

5. Embrace the Power

When an employer offers a pension, it almost always contributes to a pension fund and then hopes that investment returns are enough to meet the obligations they have to employees. So in reality, the only significant difference between a pension and a 401K plan is who is in control. With a 401K plan, you have more control over how you invest. For some people, this is scary. But for others, it's just as scary to leave their financial future in the hands of others.

6. Make a Good 401K Part of Your Job Search

Think about the last time you searched for a job. When you applied and interviewed for positions, did you take the quality of the company's 401K plan into account? Chances are, this was far down the list of concerns, below salary, health benefits, and even vacation time. But imagine if more people turned down job offers because of a lousy 401K plan or a low company match. If more prospective employees voiced concerns about the quality of retirement plans during the hiring process, companies might be more likely to improve their plans.

7. Talk to Your Lawmakers

It's unlikely that the President or Congress can force companies to bring back pensions, but they are the ones who could change 401K plans to make them more attractive. Lawmakers could pass legislation that improves the tax benefits of plans or increases the amount investors are allowed to contribute. They could pressure companies to boost their matching contributions, and require more companies to offer plans to more employees. Lawmakers could also propose new kinds of savings plans managed by the government. At the very least, voicing your concerns about the quality of the 401K as a retirement option could start a conversation on Capitol Hill.

8. Join a Union, If You Can

Much of the erosion of defined benefit plans has coincided with the drop in influence of labor unions in America. According to the AFL-CIO, about 75% of union workers participate in defined benefit plans, compared to about 20% for nonunion workers. But far fewer people are part of unions these days.

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