MONEY Taxes

IRS Bumps Up Retirement Fund Contribution Limits

You can now save more in your tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Good news: The IRS has bumped up retirement account contribution limits for 2015 to reflect cost-of-living increases. So if you’ve been wanting to sock away more in your tax-advantaged accounts, next year is your opportunity.

Today’s announcement raises the annual contribution limit for 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan by $500 to $18,000. The catch-up contribution limit for employees over age 50 also increased from $5,500 to $6,000.

IRA contribution limits and IRA catch-up contributions, however, will remain the same, at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, meaning older workers can still set aside $6,500 a year in these accounts.

This follows Wednesday’s announcement that retirees will see a 1.7% cost-of-living bump in their Social Security benefits next year.

Contribution limits are reviewed and adjusted annually to reflect inflation and cost-of-living increases. Last year, 401(k) and IRA limits remained unchanged from 2013 levels because the Consumer Price Index had not risen enough to warrant an increase.

For more details about the changes and more information about the new gross adjusted income limits for certain tax deductions, see the table below or the IRS website.

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Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

 

MONEY Social Security

Why Your Social Security Check Isn’t Keeping Up With Your Costs

Next year retirees will see their benefits rise by the inflation rate. But that may not be the best measure of seniors' true spending.

Social Security’s annual inflation adjustment is one of the program’s most valuable features. But it’s time to adjust the adjustment.

Retirees will get a 1.7% bump in their Social Security benefit next year, according to the Social Security Administration, which announced the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on Wednesday. Recipients of disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income also will receive the COLA.

That reflects continuing slow inflation in the economy—the COLA has averaged 1.6% over the past four years—but it’s not enough to keep up with the higher inflation retirees face.

My in-box fills up with angry e-mail messages about the COLA every year. So if you’re gearing up to accuse Washington politicians of conspiring against seniors, please note: By law, the COLA is determined by a formula that ties it to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

There is good news about this year’s COLA: Beneficiaries will keep every penny. There won’t be any offset for a higher Medicare Part B premium, which typically is deducted from Social Security payments. The premium will stay at $104.90 for the third consecutive year.

Still, the COLA formula should be revised as part of the broader Social Security reform that Congress must tackle. Many economists and policymakers say the CPI-W doesn’t measure retiree inflation accurately.

“From an ideal math perspective, what you want is a calculation based on an index that matches retirees’ cost of living,” says Polina Vlasenko, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “The CPI-W is constructed to measure spending patterns of urban wage earners, and it’s pretty clear that retired people spend differently than wage earners.”

A recent national survey by the Senior Citizens League illustrates the cost pressures seniors, especially those living on fixed, lower amounts of income, face. Half of retirees said their monthly expenses rose more than $119 this year, while an even higher percentage (65%) said their benefits rose by less than $19 per month.

Other research by the group, based on BLS data, shows that Social Security beneficiaries have lost 31% of their buying power since 2000. Among big-ticket items, the largest price hikes were for property taxes (104%), gasoline (160%), some types of food and healthcare expenses.

Low COLAs also cut into future benefits for Americans who are eligible for benefits (ages 62 to 70) but haven’t yet filed. When you delay taking benefits until a later age—say, full retirement age (66)—you get full benefits increased by the COLAs awarded for the intervening years.

COLAs are prominent in the debate over Social Security reform that is likely to be rekindled in the next Congress. COLA reform could involve more generous adjustments – or a benefit cut. A cut would be achieved by adopting the “chained CPI,” which some say more accurately measures changes in consumer spending by reflecting substitution of purchases that they make when prices rise. The Social Security Administration has estimated the chained CPI would reduce COLAs by three-tenths of a percent annually.

A more generous COLA would come via the CPI-E (for “elderly”), an alternative, experimental index maintained by the BLS that is more sensitive to retirees’ spending. That index generally rises two-tenths of a percent faster than the CPI-W.

Congress has been gridlocked on Social Security, but public opinion is clear. The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) released a national poll Thursday that shows 72% support raising benefits. The survey also asks Americans to say how reform should be paid for. The most popular options (71%) included a gradual elimination of the cap on income taxed for Social Security ($117,000 this year, and $118,500 in 2015) and a gradual increase over 20 years on the payroll tax rates workers and employers both pay, from 6.2% to 7.2%.

Poll respondents also backed adoption of a more generous COLA, such as the CPI-E.

“Seniors are noticing the very small COLAs, and they just have a feeling that prices are going up more than that,” says Virginia Reno, NASI’s vice president for income security policy. “If you measure the market basket separately for seniors, average inflation has been a bit higher because they spend a larger share of their money on healthcare, and for things like housing and heating.”

Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Millennials Are Flocking to 401(k)s in Record Numbers

hand clicking Apple mouse connected to egg with 401k on it
Jason York—Getty Images

First-time 401(k) plan enrollees are soaring as young workers enter the labor force. This is a positive development. But it won't solve our savings crisis by itself.

Young workers have received the message about long-term financial security—and with increasing assistance from employers they are doing something about it, new research shows.

In the first half of 2014, the number of Millennials enrolling for the first time in a 401(k) plan jumped 55%, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 401(k) Wellness Scorecard. This twice-yearly report examines trends among 2.5 million plan participants with $129 billion of assets under the bank’s care.

The brisk initial enrollment pace is due partly to the sheer number of Millennials entering the workforce. They account for about 25% of workers today, a figure that will shoot to 50% by 2020. But it also reflects a broader trend toward 401(k) enrollment. Across all generations, the number enrolling for the first time jumped 37%, Bank of America found.

One key reason for the surge in 401(k) participation is the use of auto-enrollment by employers, as well as other enhancements. The report found that number of 401(k) plans that both automatically enroll new employees and automatically boost payroll contributions each year grew 19% in the 12 months ended June 30. And nearly all employers (94%) that added automatic enrollment in the first half also added automatic contribution increases, up from 50% the first half of last year.

Enrolling in a 401(k) plan may be the single best financial move a young worker can make. At all age levels, those who participate in a plan have far more savings than those who do not. Another important decision is making the most of the plan—by contributing enough to get the full company match and increasing contributions each year.

Other added plan features include better educational materials and mobile technology. In a sign that workers, especially Millennials, crave easy and relevant information that will help them better manage their money, the bank said participants accessing educational materials via mobile devices soared 41% in the first half of the year.

The number of companies offering advice online, via mobile device or in person rose 6% and participants accessing this advice rose 8%. A third of those are Millennials, which suggests a generation that widely distrusts banks may be coming around to the view that they need guidance—and their parents and peers may not be the best sources of financial advice.

Millennials have largely done well in terms at saving and diversifying. They are counting more on personal saving and less on Social Security than any other generation, the report found. They seem to understand that saving early and letting compound growth do the heavy lifting is a key part of the solution. Despite its flaws, 401(k) plans have become the popular choice for this strategy.

Yet this generation is saddled with debt, mostly from student loans and credit cards, and most likely to tap their 401(k) plan savings early. Millennials are also least likely take advantage of Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs, which allow participants to set aside pre-tax dollars for health care costs. Health savings account usage jumped 33% in the first half, Bank of America found. But just 23% of Millennials have one, versus 39% of Gen X and 38% of Boomers.

Still, the trends are encouraging: employers are making saving easier and workers are signing up. That alone won’t solve the nation’s retirement savings crisis. Individuals need to sock away 10% to 15% of every dime they make. But 401(k)s, which typically offer employer matching contributions, can help. So any movement this direction is welcome news.

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MONEY Second Career

3 Secrets to Launching a Successful Second Act Career

Adele Douglass created the first U.S. humane certification program for farm animals raised for food Robert Merhaut

Adele Douglass built a non-profit that protects millions of farm animals and gives farmers a new marketing niche.

After a three-decade career in Washington devoted to animal welfare issues, Adele Douglass thought she knew a lot about how bad their mistreatment could get. Still, she was shocked when she began to look closely at the conditions of farm animals in the U.S.

She discovered chickens being raised in cages so overcrowded they couldn’t raise their wings, pigs unable to turn around in tightly packed pens, and animals left unsheltered against outdoor elements.

Douglass decided the best way to improve the conditions of livestock was to push for change herself. So in 2003, at age 57, she quit her job as a non-profit executive for an animal rights association and launched her own organization, Humane Farm Animal Care. “The more I knew, the more appalled I got, and the more I wanted to do something myself,” says Douglass, now 67. “Legislation was not going to solve the problem. It took 100 years for the Humane Slaughter Act to be passed.”

Douglass figured out a way to engage farmers and consumers on the issue—by addressing their growing concerns over eating meat from animals being fed antibiotics. She developed Certified Humane, which is the first certification in the U.S. that guarantees farm animals are treated humanely from birth to slaughter. To get this certification, farmers must allow animals to engage in natural behaviors, provide appropriate space for roaming, and food free of antibiotics or hormones. Farmers who are Certified Humane can market to natural food shoppers and get higher prices for their products, Douglass says.

Humanely raised food appeals to American families of all income levels. “Young mothers want to feed their families good food. Poor people don’t want to feed their families junk” says Douglass.” Following humane practices also improves the environment, since fewer animals raised on more space creates less pollution.

To fund the organization, Douglass cashed in her $80,000 401(k) account. Her daughter, who had encouraged her to make the move, gave her $10,000 and worked at the organization during its first few years. Douglass also received grants from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and The Humane Society. In the first year of operation in 2004, 143,000 animals were raised under the organization’s standards.

Today 87 million animals are in the program, and the non-profit has three full-time employees and two part-timers. Fees for certification and annual inspections cover about 30% of the organization’s costs—the rest comes from donations and grants.

Douglass shares this advice for others hoping to launch a second act career:

Make a plan before you exit. Douglass spent years researching the issue before quitting her job. She was able to get off the ground in just one year because she modeled the certification program after an existing similar program in the U.K. called Freedom Food.

Leverage your contacts. Douglass has a deep list of connections, from animal scientists and USDA officials to fundraisers and academics, as well as contacts in the animal rights movement and veterinary profession. “I had the contacts, knowledge and experience which gave me confidence I could do this on my own,” says Douglass.

Cut personal expenses. Though Douglass’ salary isn’t much less than what she earned in her previous career, her compensation is a lot more volatile. She has willingly taken pay cuts in recent years. Douglass says she hasn’t had to change her lifestyle much. But she reduced her biggest expense—her home—by downsizing to a smaller place, which made it easier to adjust.

At 67, Douglass doesn’t envision retiring. Now living alone, with three adult children and five grandchildren, she says her family is one of her greatest joys. But her work remains an enormously satisfying part of her life too. “Sure, there are days when I am tired and frustrated. But I am doing something that benefits people, animals and the environment. I feel really good about that,” says Douglass.

Adele Douglass is a 2007 winner of The Purpose Prize, a program operated by Encore.org, a non-profit organization that recognizes social entrepreneurs over 60 who are launching second acts for the greater good.

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MONEY retirement planning

22% of Workers Would Rather Die Early Than Run Out of Money

transparent piggy bank with one silver coin inside
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Yet many of the same folks are hardly saving anything for retirement, study finds.

A large slice of middle-class Americans have all but given up on the retirement they may once have aspired to, new research shows—and their despair is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Most say saving for retirement is more difficult than they had expected and yet few are making the necessary adjustments.

Some 22% of workers say they would rather die early than run out of money, according to the Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement survey. Yet 61% say they are not sacrificing a lot to save for their later years. Nearly three quarters acknowledge they should have started saving sooner.

The survey, released during National Retirement Savings Week, looks at the retirement planning of Americans with household incomes between $25,000 and $100,000, who held investable assets of less than $100,000. One third are contributing nothing—zero—to a 401(k) plan or an IRA, and half say they have no confidence that they will have enough to retire. Middle-class Americans have a median retirement balance of just $20,000 and say they expect to need $250,000 in retirement.

Still, Americans who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially a 401(k), are doing much better than those without one. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 with access to a 401(k) have put away a median of $10,000, compared with no savings at all for those without access to a plan. Those ages 30 to 39 with a 401(k) plan have saved a median of $35,000, versus less than $1,000 for those without. And for those ages 40 to 49 with 401(k)s, the median is $50,000, while those with no plan have just $10,000.

Clearly, despite its many drawbacks, the venerable 401(k) remains our de facto national savings plan, and the best shot that the middle-class has at achieving retirement security. But only half of private-sector workers have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Those without access would benefit from a direct-deposit Roth or traditional IRA or some other tax-favored account, but data show that most Americans fail to make new contributions to IRAs, with most of those assets coming from 401(k) rollovers. One exception: a growing number of Millennials are making Roth IRA contributions.

Most people do understand the need to save for retirement, but they don’t view it as an urgent goal requiring spending cutbacks, the survey found. Still, many clearly have room in their budget to boost their savings rates. Asked where they would cut spending if they decided to get serious about saving, 56% said they would give up indulgences like the spa and jewelry; 55% said they’d cut restaurant meals; and 51% even said they would give up a major purchase like a car or a home renovation. But only 38% said they would forgo a vacation. We all need a little R&R, for sure. But a few weeks of fun now in exchange for years of retirement security is a good trade.

Of course, the larger problem is that a sizeable percentage of middle-class Americans are struggling financially and simply don’t enough money to stash away for long-term goals like retirement. As economic data show, many workers haven’t had a real salary increase for 15 years, while the cost of essentials, such as health care and college tuition, continues to soar.

Given these economic headwinds, it’s important to do as much as you can, when you can, to build your retirement nest egg. If you have a 401(k), be sure to contribute at least enough to get the full company match. And if you lack a company retirement plan, opt for an IRA—the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you are 50 or older). Yes, freeing up money to put away for retirement is tough, but it will be a bit easier if you can get tax break on your savings.

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MONEY Investing

3 Steps Retirement Investors Must Take Now To Survive This Market

boats trying to ride out rough waves in ocean
Valentin Russanov—Getty Images/Vetta

No one knows if the recent stock market turmoil is over or just beginning. Either way, it's time to re-think your investing strategy.

Is the recent volatility a prelude to worse to come? Or just another scary bump in a near six-year bull market that still has legs? Neither I nor anyone else knows the answer. But I can tell you this: It would be foolish not to take the recent turmoil as an opportunity to re-evaluate your retirement investing strategy.

Stocks have given investors a wild ride lately: one-day swings in value up or down of 1% to 2% (or more) have become frighteningly common. And with both valuations and concerns about slowing global growth running high, we could easily be in for more of the same, if not worse. Or not.

And that’s the point. Since we just don’t know, the best you can do is take a step back, re-evaluate your investing goals and risk and make whatever changes, if any, you must to make sure you’d be comfortable with your portfolio whether the market nosedives from here, or recovers and moves to even higher ground. What follows are three steps that will help you make that assessment.

1. Assess your risk tolerance: If you’ve never completed a risk tolerance questionnaire to gauge your true appetite for risk, don’t put it off any longer. Do it now. If you don’t want to go through the process of completing a questionnaire, then at the very least tote up the value of your stock and bond holdings and estimate what size loss you might be facing if we see another downdraft like the 57% drop from October, 2007 to March, 2009. Should the market take a turn for the worse, you don’t to find that the mix of stocks vs. bonds in your portfolio is out of synch with the drop in the value of your portfolio that you can actually tolerate.

In fact, even if you have assessed your risk tolerance in the past, I recommend you do it again now. Why? Stocks have had a terrific run since it bottomed out during the financial crisis. Even after recent losses, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was still up some 175% since March, 2009. It’s natural during such extended booms to become complacent. The fear and anxiety we felt during the last big market meltdown fades with time and we fall prey to overconfidence in two ways. First, we may begin to overestimate our real appetite for risk. Second, we begin to underestimate the actual risk we face in the market. Doing either of those alone isn’t good. The combination of both can wreak major havoc with your finances.

2. Bring your portfolio in line with that risk assessment: Once you have a sense of what size loss you can handle without selling in a panic, you can then start making any adjustments, if necessary, to make sure your mix of stocks and bonds reflects the level of loss you can comfortably absorb. For example, if you feel that you would begin to freak out if you had to watch your portfolio decline any more than 20% but five-plus years of stock gains have bulked up the equity portion of your portfolio so that it represents 90% of your holdings while bonds have dwindled to just 10%, then Houston, you have a problem. A 90-10 mix in 2008 would have left you staring at a 33% loss. And that doesn’t count the decline that occurred at the end of 2007 and in the early months of 2009.

If you find that for whatever reason your portfolio is much more aggressive than you are, you need to scale it back—that is, sell off some of your stock holdings and reinvest the proceeds in bonds and/or cash. This sort of adjustment is especially important if you’re nearing retirement or have already retired, as a severe setback can seriously disrupt your retirement plans.

I’m sure you can come up with dozens of reasons to put off doing this. You’ll wait for the market to come back and then rebalance your portfolio. (News flash: The market doesn’t know—or care—that you’re waiting for it rebound.) Or you don’t want to sell because you’ll realize taxable gains. (Oh, you’ll feel better selling later for a smaller gain or even a loss. Besides, to the extent you can shift assets in 401(k)s, IRAs and other tax-advantaged retirement accounts, taxes aren’t an issue.)

Or maybe you’re one of those people who has a “feel” for the market, so you’ll wait until you sense the right vibe before making any adjustments. Fine. But at least check to see how well your ESP worked back in early 2000 when the dot-com era imploded and in late 2007 when stocks went into their prolonged tailspin. Unless your timing was spot on (and you’re willing to risk that you’ll be as lucky again), I suggest you revamp your portfolio so you’ll be able to live its performance in the event of a severe downturn.

3. Take a Xanax: I’m speaking figuratively here. Once you’ve gauged your risk tolerance and assured that your portfolio’s composition is aligned with it, you’ve done pretty much all you can do from an investing standpoint. So try to relax. By all means you can follow the market’s progress (or lack of it). But try not to obsess about the market’s dips and dives (although much of the financial press will do its best to try to get you to do just that).

What you definitely do not want to do, is react emotionally to the latest news (be it good or bad) and undo the changes you made during your re-evaluation. That would be counterproductive and, far from following a well-thought-out strategy, you would be winging it. Which is never a good idea, and a particularly bad one during tumultuous markets. If watching market news on cable TV or reading about the financial markets online makes you so nervous that you feel the need to do something, then step…away…from…the…screen.

If all else fails, comfort yourself with these two thoughts: Market downturns are a natural part of the investing cycle—always have been, always will be. And investment moves driven by emotion and made in haste rarely work out for the best.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s How Social Security Will Cut Your Benefits If You Retire Early

man holding calculator in front of his head
Oppenheim Bernhard—Getty Images

Whether you retire early or later, it's important to understand how Social Security calculates your benefits.

Q: I am 60 and planning on withdrawing Social Security when 62. Due to a medical condition, I am not making $16.00 an hour anymore but only making $9.00. Do you know how income level is calculated on early retirement? Thank you.

A. Social Security retirement benefits normally may be taken as early as age 62, but your income will be substantially higher if you can afford to wait. If you are entitled to, say, a $1,500 monthly benefit at age 66, you might get only $1,125 if you began benefits at age 62. Defer claiming until age 70, when benefits reach their maximum levels, and you might receive $1,980 a month.

Still, most older Americans are like you—they can’t afford to wait. Some 43% of women and 38% of men claimed benefits in 2012 at the age of 62, according to a Social Security report. Another 49% of women and 53% of men took benefits between ages 63 and 66. Just 3% of women and 4% of men took benefits at ages 67 and later, when payouts are highest.

Why are people taking Social Security early? The report didn’t ask people why they claimed benefits. But academic research suggests that the reasons are pretty much what you might expect—retirees need the money, and they also worry about leaving benefits on the table if they defer them. There is also strong evidence that most Americans are not fully aware of the advantage of delaying benefits. A study last June sponsored by Nationwide found that 40% of early claimants later regretted their decisions.

So before you quit working, it’s important to understand Social Security’s benefits formula. To calculate your payout, Social Security counts up to 35 of your highest earning years. It only includes what are called covered wages—salaries in jobs subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Generally, you must have covered earnings in at least 40 calendar quarters at any time during your working life to qualify for retirement benefits.

The agency adjusts each year of your covered earnings to reflect subsequent wage inflation. Without that adjustment, workers who earned most of their pay earlier in their careers would be shortchanged compared with those who earned more later, when wage inflation has caused salary levels to rise.

Once the agency adjusts all of your earnings, it adds up your 35 highest-paid years, then uses the monthly average of these earnings (after indexing for inflation) to determine your benefits. If you don’t have 35 years of covered earnings, Social Security will use a “zero” for any missing year, and this will drag down your benefits. On the flip side, if you keep working after you claim, the agency will automatically increase your benefits if you earn an annual salary high enough to qualify as one of your top 35 years.

The figures below show how Social Security calculated average retirement benefits as of the end of 2012 for four categories of worker pay: minimum wage, 75% of the average wage, average wage, and 150% of the average wage. (The agency pulls average wages each year from W-2 tax forms and uses this information in the indexing process that helps determine benefits.)

  • Worker at minimum wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $686 and, at age 66 is $915.50. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $1,396.50.
  • Worker at 75% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $975 and, at age 66 is $1,300.40. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,381.20.
  • Worker at average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,187 and, at age 66 is $1,583.20. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,927.40.
  • Worker at 150% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,535 and, at age 66 is $2,047. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $3.582.80.

In short, claiming at age 62 means you’ll receive lower benefits compared with waiting till full retirement age. But given a lifetime earnings history and Social Security’s wage indexing, receiving a lower wage for your last few working years will not make a big difference to your retirement income.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published early next year by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Find Out What You’re Paying For Your Retirement Account

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: How can I find out how much I am paying in fees in my 401(k) retirement plan?

A: It’s an important question to ask, and finding an answer should be a lot easier than it is right now. Studies show that high costs lead to worse performance for investors. So minimizing your expenses is one of the best ways to improve returns and reach your retirement goals.

Yet most people don’t pay attention to fees in their retirement plans—in fact, many don’t even realize they’re paying them. Nearly half of full-time employed Baby Boomers believe they pay zero investment costs in their retirement accounts, while 19% think their fees are less than 0.5%, according to a new survey by investment firm Rebalance IRA.

Truth is, everyone who has a 401(k), or an IRA, pays fees. The average 401(k) investor has 1.5% each year deducted from his or her account for various fees. But those expenses vary widely. If you work for a large company, which can spread costs over thousands of employees, you’ll likely pay just 1% or less. Smaller 401(k) plans, those with only a few hundred employees, tend to cost more—2.5% on average and as much as 3.86%.

A percentage point or two in fees may appear trivial, but the impact is huge. “Over time, these seemingly small fees will compound and can easily consume one-third of investment returns,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA.

Translated into dollars, the numbers can be eye-opening. Consider this analysis by the Center for American Progress: a 401(k) investor earning a median $30,000 income, and who paid fund fees of just 0.25%, would accumulate $476,745 over a 40-year career. (That’s assuming a 10% savings rate and 6.8% average annual return.) But if that worker who paid 1.3% in fees, the nest egg would grow to only $380,649. To reach the same $476,745 nest egg, that worker would have to stay on the job four more years.

To help investors understand 401(k) costs, a U.S. Labor Department ruling in 2012 required 401(k) plan providers to disclose fees annually to participants—you should see that information in your statements. Still, even with these new rules, understanding the different categories of expenses can be difficult. You will typically be charged for fund management, record-keeping, as well as administrative and brokerage services. You can find more information on 401(k) fees here and here.

By contrast, if you’ve got an IRA invested directly with a no-load fund company, deciphering fees is fairly straightforward—you will pay a management expense and possibly an administrative charge. But if your IRA is invested with a broker or financial planner, you may be paying additional layers of costs for their services. “The disclosures can be made in fine print,” says Tuchman. “It’s not like you get an email clearly spelling it all out.”

To find out exactly what you’re paying, your first step is to check your fund or 401(k) plan’s website—the best-run companies will post clear fee information. But if you can’t find those disclosures, or if they don’t tell you what you want to know, you’ll have to ask. Those investing in a 401(k) can check with the human resources department. If you have an IRA, call the fund company or talk to your advisor. At Rebalance IRA, you can download templates that cover the specific questions to ask about your retirement account costs.

If your 401(k) charges more than you would like, you can minimize fees by opting for the lowest-cost funds available—typically index funds, which tend to be less expensive than actively managed funds. And if your IRA is too pricey, move it elsewhere. “You may not be able to control the markets but you do have some control over what you pay to invest,” says Tuchman. “That can make a big difference over time.”

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

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MONEY Investing

Why I Won’t Own Bond Funds in My Retirement Portfolio

Trays of eggs
James Jackson—Alamy

Owning a mix of stocks and bonds is supposed to help protect your portfolio from losses. But bonds aren't the safe asset they once were.

When stocks took a tumble last week, financial pundits were quick to call it a “potent reminder” to investors of the importance of having some bonds in your portfolio for their perceived safety and yield. The classic mix is supposed to contain 60% stocks and 40% bonds, with bonds supposedly cushioning the risk of equities. In the eyes of most investment experts, I would be considered foolish to be 100% in stocks, as I have been ever since I started investing.

But I’m not sure what bonds they’re talking about. Yes, last week the yield on a 10-year U.S. Treasury note surprised everyone by falling sharply to 1.85%, as bond prices soared—when bond prices rise, bond yields fall, and vice versa. Treasury yields edged back up to 2% the next day, as stocks rebounded. Wall Street experts are still trying to determine the reasons behind the 10-year Treasury note’s plunge, which stunned investors and traders.

But that was a one-day event. When you look at the decline in bond yields over the last three decades, I don’t understand how it is mathematically possible for Treasuries—known as the safest bond possible—to protect a stock portfolio against major shocks over the next 20 years.

No question, falling interest rates have been a boon to fixed-income investors over the last three decades. The yield on a 10-year bond has fallen from 14% in 1984 to 8% in 1994 to 4% in 2004 to about 2% today. The decline hasn’t been non-stop—bonds have rallied along the way—but the overall downward trend has most certainly pushed up fixed-income returns. As a result, bond funds have both made money and helped lower risk in a portfolio. This chart created by Vanguard, based on market data between 1926 and 2011, shows the impact of adding bonds to dampen volatility (as measured by standard deviation), while not drastically reducing returns.

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But those conditions, and that steady decline in rates, no longer exist. Today we have an environment where rates have very little room to fall and at some point will go up (we just don’t know when). Once rates finally rise, bond prices will fall, which means investors will lose money. So when someone recommends diversifying one’s portfolio with bonds these days, I wonder: is there some kind of bond that’s immune to interest rate rises that I don’t know about?

Junk, or high-yield, bonds certainly don’t fit the bill as they are also vulnerable to rate hikes. Moreover, there have been warnings that the accumulation of high-risk corporate and emerging markets bonds by mutual fund companies such as Pimco and Franklin Templeton could create a liquidity crisis in the future. Investors have been pouring money into these funds, but shocks could turn into even larger debacles when investors look to liquidate and the large amounts held by fund companies become hard to sell.

Short-duration bond mutual funds might be less affected by rising interest rates. Fidelity has a whole suite of such funds, which the fund group says “can help investors in a low and/or rising rate period.”

There are also mutual funds that “ladder” bonds with staggered durations so that a portion of the portfolio will mature every year. The goal of these laddered bond funds is also to achieve a return with less risk over all interest rate cycles.

The problem for investors saving for retirement is that the returns on such funds are so low that it’s hard to justify allocating anything to them other than savings you will need in three to five years.

I won’t be retiring for another several decades, so at this point, a market crash isn’t really my greatest risk. My greatest risk is not growing my retirement account as much as humanly possible over the next ten to 15 years. To meet that goal, I think I should stick with equities and use any future crashes as buying opportunities. I’m not 100% comfortable with that decision, but I don’t feel I have much choice. I would love to find a bond fund that could be both a safe haven and could provide steady returns, but I just don’t think that exists anymore.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY family money

This Company Will Give You $500 If You Have a Baby Today. Wait, What?

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Mike Kemp—Getty Images

It's no joke. As part of its rebranding campaign, investment firm Voya will give money to the newest of new parents.

Lucky for you if you’re in labor right now.

A company called Voya Financial has announced that it will give every baby born today—Monday, Oct. 20, 2014—500 bucks.

The promotion, timed to coincide with National Save for Retirement Week, is part of a marketing campaign to alert the public that the business that once was the U.S. division of ING is now a separate public company with a new name.

Get out the castor oil and order in Indian if you’ve already hit 40 weeks, because the offer is only available to those who exit the womb before midnight tonight—though soon-to-be-sleep-deprived new parents have until December 19 to register a child.

Voya estimates that it may have to kick in as much as $5 million, since there are about 10,000 babies born every day in the U.S.

While the company has promised that families will not have to sit through a marketing pitch to get the money, and that the baby’s information would be kept private, this special delivery still comes with a catch.

The money is automatically invested into Voya’s Global Target Payment Fund, which according to Morningstar has above-average costs and below-average performance.

Regarding the fees, Voya’s Chief Marketing Officer Ann Glover says that the funds Morningstar uses as comparison are not apples to apples. In any case, Glover says families are free to sell out of the fund if they so choose. “Of course, we would hope people would hold on to the investment,” she adds.

But hey, money is money, so if you’re due, you may as well take what you’re due.

And for those mamas and papas whose progenies aren’t quite ready to make their debuts? While you won’t get money from Voya, you may have other opportunities to get big bucks for your little one.

Start by checking in with your employer to see whether the company helps with college savings. A growing number do. Unum, for example, offers its workers with newborns $500 towards a college savings account.(Our Money 101 can help you find the best 529 college savings plan.)

Also, in several communities around the country, charitable or government programs seed savings accounts for kids. For example, residents of northern St. Louis County in Missouri can get $500 through the 24:1 Promise Accounts. Babies born in Connecticut get $100, plus $150 in matching funds by age four, thanks to the CHET Baby Scholars program.

“This is gaining significant momentum nationwide,” says Colleen Quint, who heads one of the nation’s most generous free savings program, the Harold Alfond College Challenge. Started by the founder of Dexter Shoes, the charity gives every resident newborn in Maine a $500 college savings account.

In fact, Mainers can get the most free money for their children according to a survey of such programs by the Corporate for Enterprise Development, which has gathered details on at least 29 free childrens’ savings programs.

Besides the $500 college savings account, a state agency will match 50¢ for every $1 parents contribute each year up to $100 a year and $1,000 over a child’s lifetime. So Mainers can, in theory at least, get up to $1,500 in free college savings money on top of any additional freebies they can get from companies.

That should be more than enough to buy a chemistry textbook in 2032.

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