MONEY 401(k)s

Workers Spend More Time Researching Cars Than Checking Out 401(k) Options

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Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Investors understand that retirement plans are important. But judging by time spent, 401(k)s are don't rate nearly as high as a new SUV.

When it comes to retirement saving, Americans still have their priorities skewed. That’s the conclusion of a new Charles Schwab survey, which found that workers spend more time investigating options for buying a new car or planning a vacation than researching the investment choices in their retirement plan. Cars and vacations got two hours of effort compared with one hour for 401(k)s.

It’s not that workers don’t value their retirement plans. Nearly 90% of workers say that a 401(k) is the most important option an employer can offer, the survey finds. But for most workers, appreciation of the plan isn’t translating into doing the best job possible of managing it. “It’s just human nature. We tend to gravitate to things we are comfortable with and avoid the things that we are not,” says Steve Anderson, president of Schwab Retirement Plan Services.

Part of the problem may be lack of financial knowledge. Workers surveyed by Schwab say they’d feel more confident about the ability to make a good financial decision if they had some professional guidance. Yet few people seek out help. Fewer than 25% participants who have access to professional advice have used it, according to the survey. By contrast, 87% of workers said they would hire a professional to change the oil in their car and 36% rely on one to do their taxes.

Of course, outsourcing your taxes and car maintenance isn’t the same as finding good investment help. But it’s not that the advice isn’t there. Three-quarters of 401(k) plans offer some type of help, ranging from from target-date funds to online tools to professionally managed accounts. Anderson said one reason people may not seek out help is that they don’t know it’s available. “Advice is available but it’s not promoted,” he says.

Taking advantage of this guidance can pay off, especially when it comes to reducing risk.

According to a study released by Financial Engines earlier this year, people who got professional investment help through managed accounts, target-date funds or online tools earned higher median annual returns than those who go it alone. It found that on average, employees getting advice had median annual returns that were 3.32 percentage points higher, net of fees, than workers managing their own retirement accounts.

Meanwhile, Schwab also found that people who used third-party professional advisors and had one-on-one counseling tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions despite market ups and downs.

If you are looking for plan guidance, though, make sure you understand the fees for this advice. A recent study by the GAO found that managed accounts, which let you turn over portfolio decisions to a pro, may be costly—management fees ranged from .08% to as high as 1%, on top of investing expenses. Ideally, you should pay 0.3% or less. High fees could wipe out the advantage of professional guidance. Other research has found that you may get similar benefits—generally at a much lower cost—by opting for a target-date fund.

In the long run, stepping up your saving and keeping fees low will make a bigger difference to your financial security than the investments you select. Still, making the right choices in your 401(k), as well as understanding what you need to do to reach your goals, is important. If professional advice will help you avoid making mistakes, it may be worth seeking out.

MONEY College

The Important Talk Parents Are Not Having With Their Kids

College tuition jar
Alamy

The new Fidelity College Savings Indicator survey reveals that parents are only on track to pay a third of college tuition—and that they're keeping mum on the topic.

Moms and dads expect their children to pay for more than one-third of college costs—but only 57% of parents actually have that conversation with their kids, according to a new study out by Fidelity today.

The cost of college has more than doubled in the past decade, and parents are having a hard time saving for it, Fidelity’s 8th annual College Savings Indicator study shows. While 64% of parents say they’d like be able to cover their kids total college costs, only 28% are on track to do so.

That jibes with reality: For current students, parents’ income and savings now only cover one-third of college costs on average, according to Sallie Mae’s recently released report How America Pays For College. Kids use 12% of their own savings and income. Loans taken by students and parents account for 22% of the funds, while another 30% comes from grants and scholarships.

Experts urge parents to have a frank conversation well in advance with their children about how much college costs and how much they are expected to contribute, either through summer jobs, their own savings or part-time jobs while in school. “If children know that they are expected to contribute to their college funds, they are more likely to save for it,” says Judith Ward, a senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price.

A T. Rowe Price study released earlier this week found that 58% of kids whose parents frequently talk to them about saving for college put away money for that goal vs. just 23% who don’t talk to their parents about how to pay for school.

There’s also reason to believe that parents shouldn’t feel so bad about not being able to take on the full tab. A national study out last year found that the more money parents pay for their kids’ college educations, the worse their kids tend to perform. In her paper “More Is More or More is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” University of California sociology professor Laura Hamilton found that larger contributions from parents are linked to lower grades among students.

Apparently, kids who don’t work or otherwise use their own money to pay for school spend more time on leisure activities and are less focused on studying. It’s not that these kids flunk out, according to Hamilton. She found that students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school, but they just dial down their academic efforts.

Given all these findings, parents should feel less pressure pay the full ride for their kids—especially if it means falling behind on other important goals like saving for their own retirement. “Putting your kids on the hook for college costs is better for everyone,” says Ward.

MONEY 101: How much does college actually cost?

MONEY 101: Where should I save for college?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s How to Protect Your 401(k) from the Next Big Market Drop

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Bull markets don’t last forever. How can I protect my 401(k) if there’s another big downturn soon?

A: After a five-year tear, the bull market is starting to look a bit tired, so it’s understandable that you may be be nervous about a possible downturn. But any changes in your 401(k) should be geared mainly to the years you have until retirement rather than potential stock market moves.

The current bull market may indeed be in its last phase and returns going forward are likely to be more modest. Still, occasional stomach-churning downturns are just the nature of the investing game, says Tim Golas, a partner at Spurstone Executive Wealth Solutions. “I don’t see anything like the 2008 crisis on the horizon, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more volatility in the markets,” says Golas.

That may feel uncomfortable. But don’t look at an increase in market risk as a key reason to cut back your exposure to stocks. “If you leave the market during tough times and get really conservative with long-term investments, you can miss a lot of gains,” says Golas.

A better way to determine the size of your stock allocation is to use your age, projected retirement date, as well as your risk tolerance as a guide. If you are in your 20s and 30s and have many years till retirement, the long-term growth potential of stocks will outweigh their risks, so your retirement assets should be concentrated in stocks, not bonds. If you have 30 or 40 years till retirement you can keep as much as 80% of your 401(k) in equities and 20% in bonds, financial advisers say.

If you’re uncomfortable with big market swings, you can do fine with a smaller allocation to stocks. But for most investors, it’s best to keep at least a 50% to 60% equities, since you’ll need that growth in your nest egg. As you get older and closer to retirement, it makes sense to trade some of that potential growth in stocks for stability. After all, you want to be sure that money is available when you need it. So over time you should reduce the percentage of your assets invested in stocks and boost the amount in bonds to help preserve your portfolio.

To determine how much you should have in stocks vs. bonds, financial planners recommend this standard rule of thumb: Subtract your age from 110. Using this measure, a 40-year old would keep 70% of their retirement funds in stocks. Of course, you can fine-tune the percentage to suit your strategy.

When you’re within five or 10 years of retirement, you should focus on reducing risk in your portfolio. An asset allocation of 50% stocks and 50% stocks should provide the stability you need while still providing enough growth to outpace inflation during your retirement years.

Once you have your strategy set, try to ignore daily market moves and stay on course. “You shouldn’t apply short-term thinking to long-term assets,” says Golas.

For more on retirement investing:

Money’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement

MONEY Business Travel

How to Keep Fear of Flying From Grounding Your Career

An anxiety filled flight can make it tough to give your best at work. Jupiter Images—Getty Images

If your job requires you to get on a plane, this anxiety could hold you back at work. Here's how to cope with your worries.

It’s understandable if the recent spate of high-profile airplane crashes around the world has made you nervous about flying.

Three airline disasters in eight days last month have pushed the number of dead or missing this year to more than 700, putting 2014 on track to be the worst year for airline fatalities since at least 2010. With 464 fatalities, July was the fifth worst month in aviation history, according to the Air Safety Network.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, aviation experts and many news outlets issued the standard post-crash reassurance that flying is still much safer than most forms of travel, including driving a car.

But even if flying isn’t more dangerous, the fear of it can have a big impact on your life and your career. If you’re anxious about air travel, you may turn down opportunities to attend important business conferences. And even if you can get on the plane, you may be too anxious to sleep and emerge from the trip exhausted. If you need to work during the flight, anxiety can sap your productivity.

The medications you might take to cope can leave you fuzzy just when you need to be sharp for a client meeting or a speech. At its worst, a fear of flying may keep you from rising the corporate ladder.

“The impact on careers is pretty clear and often striking,” says Dr. James Abelson, director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment program at the University of Michigan. “We regularly see people who shy away from jobs that would require them to fly and even turn down promotions.”

Who Suffers the Most

Exactly how many people suffer from a fear of flying is unknown. Some surveys find that about 25% of people are nervous about air travel. In a July poll, 36% of Americans said that recent political turmoil has made them afraid to fly internationally. But true aviaphobics make up just 6% of the population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Whatever the stats, there’s no doubt that millions are anxious about getting airborne.

The phobia is more common among those who are successful, says Dr. Martin Seif, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and operates a fear of flying program called Freedom To Fly. That may be because people with hard-driving, Type-A personalities get uncomfortable when they aren’t in control. Plus, workers in management and executive positions are more likely to have to get on a plane for the job, says Seif.

Indeed, a number of successful celebrities, from sports stars like Wayne Gretzky to entertainers like Aretha Franklin, suffer from a fear of flying that has affected their careers.

What You Can Do

Whether you’re a celeb or a worker bee, you can take advantage of online resources, in-person programs, and even apps to get your fears under control and limit the damage to your career.

Several airports and airlines offer workshops to help nervous flyers, according to USA Today. At Phoenix Sky Harbor International, a fear-of-flying class convenes monthly, with an advanced session that allows students to test their coping strategies on an actual flight. Captain Ron Nielson, a commercial airline pilot for 40 years, runs the Fearless Flight program. Milwaukee’s General Mitchell airport’s Overcome Your Fear of Flying program is headed by Dr. Michael P. Tomaro, an aviation psychologist and certified flight instructor. San Francisco’s International airport hosts a fear-of-flying clinic that will run five workshops this year. A few international airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, also offer programs.

Seif’s Freedom to Fly program is airport based. Students go through the airport security, board the plane, and take short flights to learn how to deal with anxiety management. He also offers individual counseling sessions.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers a number of articles and lists resources for overcoming fear of flying.

SOAR, an organization started in 1982 by Captain Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist and airline captain, sells DVDs and one-on-one counseling sessions. It has also developed an app to manage anxiety on the go, with videos, relaxation exercises, and turbulence forecasts for your flight. The VALK Foundation, a Dutch institute that studies and treats the fear of flying, also has an app to help anxious passengers.

Simple techniques, such as doing slow controlled rhythmic breathing, can also help. The best cure for fear of flying: flying.

“The active ingredient in overcoming any fear is exposure,” says Seif. “The more you fly, the easier it is.”

MONEY office etiquette

3 No-Fail Ways to Handle a Coworker Who’s Too Loud

Businessman plugging his ears
Anthony Lee—Getty Images

Q: My colleague makes loud personal phone calls all the time. I work in an open office and sit right next to him. How can I get him to be more quiet without creating an awkward situation?

A: Dealing with noisy neighbors is one of the many curses of working in an open office space. (You’re also more likely to get sick and be less productive).

Nearly 70% of offices now have open layouts, according to the International Facility Management Association; plus the average square footage per person has dropped from 225 to 176 between 2010 and 2012—and is expected to fall to 100 by 2017, according to corporate real estate association Corenet. So some ambient noise is to be expected.

But being cozied up to your colleague doesn’t mean you have to settle for an earful of his high-volume personal calls.

You’ve got a few options for how to resolve the issue.

Ideally, a professional and polite conversation with your co-worker will solve the problem. “Sometimes it’s just an awareness issue,” says Bill Driscoll of staffing agency Accountemps. “Your coworker may not realize that everyone can hear their personal business.”

But if you don’t want to say something directly, ask your manager to speak to him. Rather than ratting out your colleague for doing personal business on work time, says Driscoll, simply tell your boss that the loud talking is distracting you from doing your job. Your boss should be empathetic when you pitch it in terms of the impact on the results you are able to deliver.

A final option is to ask your manager if you can move your desk to a quieter place in the office, with no naming of names.

Whatever you try, keep this in mind: “We spend almost as much time at work as we do at home,” says Driscoll. “This isn’t something you should have to live with.”

MONEY pay raise

5 Ways to Get a Big Raise Now

Envelope With a Money. Image shot 03/2013. Exact date unknown.
Alamy

The best salary bumps go to the most valued workers. Here’s how to make sure you’re one of them.

All signs point to a rapidly improving job market, giving workers the upper hand over employers when it comes to getting a decent pay increase.

“The economy is heating up, and employment is improving. Employees should have more leverage and more confidence to ask for more,” says Bill Driscoll of staffing firm Accountemps.

It’s about time. While pay increases have steadily been rising since the end of the recession, the gains have been modest. Mercer is projecting an average pay raise of 3% for workers in 2015. That’s up from 2.9% this year, 2.8% in 2013 and 2.7% in 2012.

But for top performing and highly skilled workers, the pay bumps are much plumper.

Mercer’s survey shows the highest-performing employees received average base pay increases of 4.8% in 2014 compared with 2.6% for average performers and 0.1% for the lowest performers.

“Differentiating salary increases based on performance has become the norm,” according to Rebecca Adractas, a principal in Mercer’s Rewards consulting business. “It’s an effective way for employers to recognize top performers without increasing budgets dramatically.”

Here are five ways you can snag a better-than-average raise.

1. Gather your accolades. You know you’re good at what you do, but when clients, customers and respected colleagues say so, that carries weight with higher-ups. Collect emails of praise from your boss, ask customers or clients to write testimonials for your work, and get feedback from your manager after completing projects.

2. Prove you’re a top performer. There’s nothing like a number to show you are delivering on the job. Quantify your accomplishments. Sure, that’s easier if you’re in sales and you can show you’ve more than hit your targets or landed a big account. Did you implement more efficient ways to get things done, cut costs to meet budgets, take on additional responsibilities above and beyond your normal job duties? Those count too.

3. Know what to ask for. Are other people at your firm getting raises? How is your company doing? Is it hiring people or laying them off? Even companies cutting back don’t want to lose experienced employees. That doesn’t mean you’ll get a raise, but it will help if your request is grounded in reality.

It’s also important to know how you stack up against others in your position. If you’ve been at your company a long time, you may not be making as much as recent hires. Use tools such as PayScale.com’s salary calculator to research compensation by experience level, company size, and the city where you work. You can also talk to colleagues or even co-workers who have recently left your company about how much people make in your position. It’s still taboo to talk about salary, but if you ask for ranges, it’ll be an easier discussion to have.

4. Ask. Seems like the obvious place to start, but 56% of workers have never asked for a raise, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. Sure, it can be an uncomfortable conversation, but this stat from the survey should give you courage: Two-thirds of workers who asked for a raise received one.

And now is a good time to have the conversation. Companies draw up their budgets for the next year in the fall, beginning in September. Wait till December to talk with your boss and it may be too late.

5. Don’t take no for an answer. If your manager isn’t willing to give you the pay bump you’re looking for, ask what you can do to get it down the road. Take notes and set a time to follow up. After the meeting, send an email thanking your boss for talking with you and summarize what you discussed so you have in writing what was laid out.

If a bigger than average pay increase isn’t in the cards because budgets are tight, consider other perks that you’d value. “Smart companies are retaining their talent in a myriad of ways besides salary increases,” says Driscoll. That includes one-time bonuses, working a flexible schedule, additional vacation days, telecommuting, covering more of the cost of health benefits, a richer 401(k) contribution, even cell phone reimbursement. “There are other ways to increase your salary without getting a pay raise,” he says.

Related:
7 Reasons It’s a Great Time to Ask for a Raise

MONEY Raises

7 Reasons It’s a Great Time to Ask for a Raise

John Gillmoure—Corbis

The sluggish job market is finally kicking into high gear, and that's good news if you are itching for a decent raise this year.

Stocks have been on a bull run since 2009, corporate earnings are soaring, and the housing market is surging. Now the latest economic reports show that the sluggish job market is finally catching up to the rest of the economy.

If you’ve been thinking about making your pitch for a raise, here are seven reasons why now might be the right time.

1. Job openings are highest in more than a decade. After rising for five straight months, the number of available jobs hit 4.7 million, the highest since February 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, out Tuesday.

2. Competition for jobs is less stiff. There are two unemployed workers per job opening, down from three in the fall and seven during the height of the financial crisis.

3. The number of people quitting jobs—a sign that workers are more confident in landing a new one—is at 2.5 million, the highest since June 2008.

4. The number of jobs being created rose by more than 200,000 for the sixth straight month in July, the longest string of gains since 1997. Meanwhile, unemployment is the lowest since 2008, at 6.2%.

5. Raises are bigger. According to Mercer’s 2014/2015 US Compensation Planning Survey, the average raise in base pay is expected to be 3.0% in 2015, up slightly from 2.9% in 2014, 2.8% in 2013, and 2.7% in 2012. Workers rated above average, a group that accounts for 36% of the workforce, will get salary increases between 3.7% and 4.8% this year, according to Mercer.

6. Temp jobs are turning into full-time gigs. Conversions (giving full-time jobs to temporary workers) are at a three-year high, according to staffing agency Manpower.

7. Employers are really worried about losing talented workers. Turnover is up dramatically: 51% of employers are seeing workers leave, vs. 30% in 2012, according to OI Partners. Nearly three-quarters of employers say they are worried about losing highly skilled workers.

Of course, some of the optimism depends on what industry you’re in. For example, the average raise in the energy sector is projected to be 3.5%, vs. 2.8% for people who work in consumer goods, according to Mercer.

And while the picture is brightening for the long-term unemployed—the number of people without a job for six months or longer fell to 3.16 million in July, vs. 4.25 million a year earlier—it remains twice the number it was before the recession in 2007.

Still, economists are optimistic that salary increases, absent from the rebound in the job market, will finally kick in.

Wage growth is likely be “one of the big stories over the next 12 months,” says Capita Economics chief U.S. economist Paul Ashworth in his latest research note. Among positive signs: a sharp increase in the proportion of small businesses saying that they are planning to raise compensation. And a rising proportion of households in the Conference Board’s consumer confidence survey saying that they expect their incomes to rise, while fewer are saying they expect their incomes to fall.

Tomorrow: We’ll tell you the right moves to make to land a raise as the job market improves.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s One Good Reason To Borrow From Your 401(k)

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Should I use my 401(k) for a down payment on a house?

A: Let’s start with the obvious. It’s rarely a good idea to borrow from your retirement plan.

One major drawback is that you’ll give up the returns that the money could have earned during the years you’re repaying the loan. Your home isn’t likely to give you the same investment return, and it’s difficult to tap real estate for income in retirement. There’s also a risk that you’ll lose your job, which would require you to pay back the loan, typically within 60 days, though home loans may have a longer repayment period.

Still, 401(k) borrowing has undeniable advantages. For starters, “they’re easy loans to get,” says Atlanta financial planner Lee Baker. You don’t have to meet financial qualifications to borrow, and you can get the money quickly. Interest rates for these loans are generally low—typically a percentage point or so above prime, which was recently 3.25%. Another big plus is that you pay yourself back, since the rules generally require you to fully repay within five years; 10 years if you buy a house. (Otherwise, the amount will be taxable, plus you will pay a penalty if you’re under 59 1/2.) So you eventually do replace the money with interest. Be aware, most plans limit your borrowing to $50,000 or 50% of your account balance, whichever is less.

Given how easy it is to get a 401(k) loan, it’s no wonder many workers tap their plans for home buying, especially Millennials. About 10% of home buyers borrow from their 401(k) and another 4% use funds from IRAs, according to the National Association of Realtors. And overall some 17% of Millennials report borrowing from their company plan, according to a 2014 Ameriprise study, Financial Tradeoffs. “It is where they have accumulated most of their savings,” says Baker.

All that said, when it comes to buying a home, a 401(k) loan can make sense. If you can put together enough cash for a 20% down payment, you may able to avoid avoid mortgage insurance, which can your lower monthly bill. And with interest rates still low, having a down payment now can enable you lock in a good rate compared with waiting till you have more money when mortgage rates may be higher.

If you go this route, though, take a close look at your financial resources both inside and outside your plan. Will you have to tap all your savings, leaving you vulnerable if you have a financial emergency? Do you have enough cash flow to meet your monthly payment and pay the loan? Is your job relatively secure or do you have to worry about a layoff that will trigger the automatic repayment provision?

And if you borrow, don’t forget to keep saving. A common mistake people make is halting regular contributions during the pay back period, which puts you further behind your retirement goals. At the very least, says Baker, contribute enough to get your employer match.

More on Home Buying:

Should I Pay Off Loans or Save for a Down Payment?

Single and Thinking of Buying a Home? Here’s Some Advice

“At 27, I’m the First of My Friends to Own a Home:” A Buyer’s Story

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Workers Would Take a Pay Cut for This Retirement Benefit

Image Source—Getty Images

A 401(k) employer match is so valuable that many workers would be willing to lower their pay to get a bigger one, a survey finds.

Would you willingly take a pay cut? A surprising number of workers say yes—if it means getting a richer 401(k) match.

That’s one of the findings from a Fidelity Investments survey released today. When workers were asked if they’d prefer to have lower compensation in return for a higher 401(k) employer contribution, 43% chose the pay cut. As the responses show, many workers realize that it would be worthwhile to accept “a short-term pay cut for a long-term payoff,” says Fidelity vice president Jeanne Thompson.

The results also show that more people are worried about achieving a financially secure retirement, which seems increasingly out of reach. For many workers, a 401(k) plan is their sole means for saving for retirement, while an employer match is the closest thing to a free lunch that you can get. But a 401(k) match is more than a nice fringe benefit—depending on your ability to save, it may even make or break your retirement.

Why is a 401(k) match so crucial to retirement success? Consider that most workers need to put away 10% to 15% of salary in their plan to be on track to a comfortable retirement, financial advisers say. But the typical saver stashes away only 8%. So to get to that 10% or higher savings rate, the average worker needs a boost from a company match. Overall, employer matches account for more than 35% of total contributions to the average worker’s 401(k) account.

That brings up one bright spot in the survey: The typical employer match is now 4.3% of pay, which comes to an average of $3,450 per worker a year. That’s a jump of more than $1,000 compared with the average employer contribution 10 years ago.

There are good reasons for employers to offer tempting 401(k) matches. Companies can deduct the contributions from their corporate taxes, and the benefit is a valuable tool for attracting talent and retaining employees, especially as the job market improves. Only 13% of workers surveyed said they’d take a job with no company match, even if it came with higher pay.

Of course, the fact that Fidelity is asking workers to choose between a match and pay cut is another stark reminder that Americans are largely on their own when it comes to saving for retirement. “Many people used to have a pension plan. That’s not true for younger workers today, and even many Baby Boomers who had pension plans have had them frozen,” says Thompson.

If your 401(k) lacks a generous match, it’s crucial to step up your own savings. One relatively painless way to do it is start with a 1% increase in your savings rate. For each $33 reduction in your take-home pay, you will add $220 to $330 to your future retirement income. (To see how different savings rates will boost your nest egg, try this retirement income calculator.) At the very least, save enough to get your full 401(k) match.

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