How does your 401(k) Measure Up?

Years ago, people would work for the same company for thirty or more years and then retire with a gold watch and a lifetime pension. They trusted that the company, and their retirement benefits, would always be there. But times have changed. It's now incumbent upon you to establish and look after your own retirement plan, and that's a big responsibility. How does your company's 401(k) plan look? How is it performing? Here's a general checklist of a few things, good and not-so-good, to be on the lookout for.

Telltale signs of a good 401(k) plan:

  • Your company offers at least a half-dozen investment options.
  • You can enroll after six months or less of employment.
  • Your company pays its matching 401(k) contributions in cash.
  • You're allowed you to direct the investment of the company's matching contributions.
  • You can call or go online to check your account balance or transact other business.
  • You can roll money from a former employer's 401(k) into your current one.
  • Your company actively provides educational tools; for example, newsletters, software, workshops, etc.
  • You have ready access to independent financial advisors.

Some warning indicators that your 401(k) account may be in trouble:

  • Your company is having financial difficulties.
  • You've asked for, but never received, a summary plan description, or you can't get any information on the investments in your plan.
  • Your company has never sent you a statement showing the money that you and your employer have contributed to your account. When you do get a statement, the numbers don't match the deductions taken from your paycheck.
  • Most of the 401(k) assets are in a single investment managed or selected by the plan trustees.
  • You notice that the plan investments have changed, but you were never notified.
  • Your money has been moved into different investments without your instruction.
  • The stock market is up, but your account balance is way down.
  • Your account is constantly being adjusted, such as for error corrections.
  • The major plan overseers (the administrator, trustee, record keeper, or investment manager) change more than once every two years. You don't recognize the plan's trustee; it's not a financial institution.
  • There are large discrepancies between the Summary Annual Report and the Form 5500 (the annual report filed with the IRS) from one year to the next.

In addition, here are a few questions you might consider asking concerning your 401(k). Pay careful attention to the answers that you receive.

  • Are the statements that you receive clear, logical, and understandable? Do they show plainly what your plan owns?
  • Do you feel comfortable that your overall communications with the financial consultant are good and that the consultant attends to your questions and needs promptly?
  • Is your 401(k) plan's performance roughly in line with what you expected, or is the fund apparently doing much better or much worse, and why?
  • Is the investment style and strategy that you understood would be used in the management of your assets continuing to be exercised?
  • If there are investment restrictions in your guidelines, are they being adhered to?

Remember, it's your retirement money. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you don't like the answers that you get, or you get no answers at all, contact the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration.

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