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Manage Your 401k Plan – Tips to Improve Your Investment Returns

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My company recently changed the employer match for our 401k contributions, which reminded me to do a little maintenance on my 401k. I usually go over my plan at the beginning of every year, but I decided to go over everything again with the recent changes in our plan and my family situation – having a baby and my wife becoming a stay at home mom. These tips should help you manage your 401k plan and I recommend going over them at least once a year, or any time you have a major life event.

Take Advantage of Free Money

How to manage your 401k plan

Use these tips to manage your 401k plan.

Max out company match. If your company offers matching contributions, then you should contribute at least the amount of the full company match if you can afford it. The company match is part of your benefits package and is essentially free money. You should still consider investing in your 401k plan without matching contributions, but you may find that it makes sense to first contribute to a Roth IRA if you can better control your investment options and fees.

Manage 401k Contribution Limits

Employees can contribute up to $17,500 (2013 limit; up from $17,000 in 2012). Here is how you can maximize your contributions: first determine how much of your salary you are able to contribute to retirement plans, then determine where to allocate contributions. Depending on your tax bracket now and expected tax bracket in retirement, you may be better off contributing enough in your 401k plan to receive the maximum company match, then contributing to a Roth IRA. If you are able to contribute enough to cover the company match and max out your Roth IRA ($5,500 in 2013), then consider increasing your 401k contributions.

Manage 401k Fees and Expenses

All 401k plans come with associated fees, such as administrative fees, investment management fees, and trust custody fees. Participants usually pay some of these fees and the company pays others. 401k plan administrative fees associated with maintaining your individual account, such as recording and tracking your contribution amount and investment selections, are usually paid by directly by your company. It’s essential to know your 401k retirement plan fees, and adjust your investments accordingly. These 401k tips can help you minimize your 401k investment fees:

Invest in low cost funds. Many 401k plans feature funds with high expense ratios. Look for index funds and other low cost funds for your investments. High expense ratios will destroy your growth.

Watch for increased fees if you leave your company. You should double check who pays for your administration plan fees after you leave your company, as some companies will no longer pay administrative fees for former employees. Here are more tips regarding what to do with your 401k plan after you leave your job.

Compare your 401k plan to other companies and industries. If you want to know how your 401k plan stacks up to other 401k plans, then check out this article, which shows you what to look for when comparing 401k plans.

Double Check Your Asset Allocation

Asset allocation is essential to any good investment portfolio. At its core, asset allocation is a method of diversifying your investments to mitigate risk, and give your investment portfolio a better chance to increase in value during all types of economies or investment environments. Your asset allocation should be appropriate for your age and the amount of risk you are willing to take with your retirement accounts. It is a good idea to review your portfolio at least once or twice a year, and any time you have a major life event.

How to manage your asset allocation: The best way to manage your 401k assets is to consider them as part of your entire investment portfolio, not as their own entity. This is because all of your investments are in one large bucket and trying to balance each separate account as its own portfolio is not only cumbersome, but it is an unhealthy investment practice. My favorite way to make sure all of my investments are balanced is to use Personal Capital, which is a free investment tool that helps you see your true asset allocation across all investments, see how much you are paying in fees, and more.

Personal Capital makes it easy for even the average investor to understand how their portfolio is constructed. But if you need investment advice, then I recommend visiting a fee only financial planner to discuss your retirement needs.


Published or updated November 28, 2012.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 AJ

I need to see if my company has a 401k. Thanks for the reminder.

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2 Curious Cat Investing Blog

Good advice. First step save money in your 401(k). Next manage your asset allocation while considering fees and performance. You should manage your 401(k) as a part of your overall investment plan. As an example, You may want to increase your 401(k) foreign stock holding (if it offers a good stock fund with low expenses) and then reduce such holdings outside of your 401(k).

Far too often I read about x safe investment and y risky investment. In reality investments are part of the whole and it is much more sensible to discuss how investments fit your overall investment picture. Money market funds are relatively low risk. But a portfolio that is 100% money market funds for long term and short term needs is not the least risky. Adding some stocks funds to such a portfolio does not make it more risky.

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3 daddy paul

“Watch for increased fees if you leave your company. ”
Great point. Another reason to roll over to an IRA.

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4 Kim Tran

Hi,
Plz help me– i don’t know whether I should roll over my 401k to IRA
I’m 57 yrs old just filed for early retirement. Don’t know whether I should roll
Over my 401k to traditional IRA. Talked to fedility, TD ameritrade , Merrill &
Dreyfus. They all tried to convince me that rolling over to their c.o. Is the best
Option! I’m still thinking whether or not I should just leave it in my 401k & manage it
Myself?
Any advice is much appreciated!

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5 Ryan Guina

Kim, you have a couple options: you can leave your funds in your 401k if you like your plan’s investment options, the management expense ratios, and the ongoing management fees. Keep in mind that some companies charge former employees more to continue leaving their funds in he 401k plan. You will likely have more investment options and lower management fees if you roll your 401k into an IRA. That would also give you more of your investments under one roof, making your investments easier to manage. All things being equal, I’m a fan of rolling a 401k into an IRA for those reasons (more investment options, access to lower fee investments, and easier management). Here are some articles you may find useful to help you decide what to do with your funds: Where to open an IRA, Personal Capital Review (free online portfolio management software), and FutureAdvisor Review (another free online portfolio management software suite).

Personal Capital and FutureAdvisor allow you to link investment accounts and they will analyze them to show you how well you are diversified, how much you are paying in fees, and areas for improvement. These programs are an excellent way to make sure you are maximizing your investments and staying on track. Best of luck with the transition!

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