AUDIO: Who Moved My Retirement Cheese?

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Does anxiety about retirement keep you up at night? You’re not alone.

Millions of Americans are terrified of outliving their savings. The fear of running out of money for retirement, already preying on the minds of most Americans when last surveyed by Gallup in 2019, rose 9 points to 63% in 2022.

Financial worries are worsening in the nation, exacerbated by the lingering pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war, elevated inflation, rising interest rates, recent banking sector woes…you name it. Take a look at the following table:

Source: Gallup

Separately, a recent Federal Reserve report shows that although 75% of non-retired American adults have at least some retirement savings, about 25% do not have any.

Which brings me to the 401k plan. If you’re a 401k investor, you probably assume you’ve made all the right moves and now, all you need to do is watch your wealth grow.

You’ve selected your funds, watched your fees like a hawk, and are investing the maximum amount of money possible to give your 401k plan the fuel it needs to grow to seven figures.

And despite the market’s swoon lately, if you were smart, you stood your ground and didn’t make major changes out of panic.

The old “switcheroo”…

But what if your company comes along and tosses a monkey wrench into the whole operation? Maybe a stick of dynamite is more apt. That’s what happens when an employer changes your 401k plan. Below is your action plan if your company makes the switch to a new 401k provider.

In a perfect world, your company has a good reason for the switch, such as reducing fees or improving the plan’s offerings. But in the real world, the change may, for one reason or another, be better for your boss than for you. Or a new plan that is perfectly good for most of your coworkers might not suit you as well as the old one.

In any case, a change in providers means you should do a little sleuthing to make sure there have been no glitches in your account and that your new funds are the ones you really want.

If your company is changing 401k providers, you’ve probably been assured that the transition will be seamless, and from a superficial standpoint, it may well be. The new 401k provider will work with your firm’s payroll manager to make sure that contributions flow into the plan right on schedule, and your elections, both contribution amounts and investment choices, should also carry over to the new provider without you having to lift a finger.

Still, you should check your new statements to be sure they reflect the full amount that should have been transferred from the old plan. Be especially attentive if you’ve been making contributions to a Roth account as well as a traditional account.

In retirement, the Roth withdrawals will be tax free, while those from the traditional account will be taxed as income, so mistakes could be costly. Be sure your new contributions are for the correct amount and are being divided between these accounts correctly. The same goes for any after-tax contributions you’d made.

Next, make sure the new plan has recorded the correct beneficiaries — the people who will inherit your account.

Then, of course, you need to be sure the new funds suit your strategy. Typically, the new provider will select funds that are similar to your old ones. That’s easy if, for example, you’d been investing in funds that track indexes such as the S&P 500. But some funds that look comparable might be quite different.

Suppose, for example, you’d invested in a target date fund designed for a retirement starting in 20 years. Your old provider might have a large stock allocation after that target date arrives, while the new one might be more conservative. You need to know.

Also, there are two layers of fees to check. One is the expense ratio on each fund you invest in. The second is the provider’s administrative charge. In a change, these may seesaw, with one going up and the other down.

Although your assets may switch to comparable funds, the new plan may offer alternatives you didn’t have before. So, make this a good time to review your long-term strategy.

What if you’re unhappy with the new offerings? I suggest looking for the escape hatch, a “brokerage option” that would allow you to invest in funds from other firms.

Finding a new job is an option, though an extreme one. That would allow you to switch your assets into the new employer’s 401k, or to roll them over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which would allow you to invest in just about anything you want.

Short of that, you could consider reducing your contributions to the 401k and increasing investment outside the plan. Unfortunately, this could mean sacrificing some of the tax deduction you enjoy with 401k contributions. Unless the new provider’s offerings are truly toxic, you should probably continue contributing at least enough to get your employer’s full matching contributions.

Your best move is to keep your eyes and ears open in the event of a company 401k plan change. Ask questions. Poke around. Study your new plan options and bring in professional help if you need it. Those are the cornerstones of a good action plan when your plan changes.

PS: Knowing your risk tolerance will help you decide which investment strategy is right for you. For example, if you have a low risk tolerance, you may want to emphasize safe haven investments even though your time horizon indicates you could be more aggressive. For our special report on safe, high-income stocks, click here.

John Persinos is the editorial director of Investing Daily.

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