MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) May Only Return 4%

Faucet dripping coins
peepo—Getty Images

The biggest dilemma in retirement investing may be how hard it will be to grow our savings in the next decade.

There have been a lot of predictions from professionals lately about what kind of returns we can expect on our investments, and it doesn’t look good. In June PIMCO bond guru Bill Gross announced at the Morningstar conference (and subsequently to almost every media outlet in existence) that a close-to-zero interest rate was the “new neutral.” Gross envisions a market where bonds return just 3% to 4% a year on average, while stocks return a modest 4% to 5%.

Gross’s forecast echoes that of a number of other investment experts, including Ray Dalio, the head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, who called this post-Recession era we are in “the boring years,” during which investors are likely to earn returns of just 3% for bonds and 4% for equities.

These low-return predictions are based, in part, on diminished expectations for the U.S. economy, with the IMF recently warning that our GDP growth may get stuck at 2% for the long term unless Washington adopts significant reforms.

A 4% return would be a huge decline from the historical performance of the U.S. stock market, which has earned an average annual 10% over the last 40 years. Many financial planners still use 8% to 10% as the expected return for stocks in 401(k)s and other investment portfolios. All of which presents a real predicament for those of us in the middle of our careers who have been assuming strong growth will carry us over the finish line.

You see, the real benefit of starting to invest early, the reason people in their 20s are exhorted to open retirement accounts, has always been the power of compounding in the last 10 or so years of a 40 year horizon—the hockey stick uptick on a line graph. But in order to experience that exhilarating growth curve, you need to earn an average annual return in the high single digits, not the low single digits. Compounding simply doesn’t have as much power if you start off earning 10% for 20 years and then earn only 4% for the second 20 years.

If these predictions come true—and I hope that they won’t—it will be much more difficult to make money off of money in the future. This will impact just about everybody age 40 or older: current retirees and people living off fixed incomes, those hoping to retire in five to ten years, and those in mid-career who will need to rethink their strategy moving forward.

The only real solution, as far as I can tell, is to save more and spend less. You can try to earn more, but another strange feature of this recovery-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-recovery is that while unemployment has dropped, wages have remained stagnant. Besides, depending on your tax bracket, you would have to earn a lot more to get to the same amount after taxes that you could put aside by saving.

So while the investment pundits are making their predictions and coining their phrases, allow me to offer my own: we may now be entering the era of the New Frugal. After three decades of a declining personal savings rate, from 10% in the 1970s to 1% in the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 brought savings back up above 5% where it continues to hover. My prediction is that if stock market returns become stagnant, we might continue to see a reduction in consumption and an increase in savings.

What this all means for the economy as a whole I will leave to the experts to ponder. All I know is that if I can no longer expect a 10% average annual return on my retirement fund, I’m going to be a heck of a lot more conservative about how much I spend.

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.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Secret To Saving For Retirement When You Have Nothing Saved At All

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

A: I am a 52-year-old single mother. I have NO savings at all for any kind of retirement. What can I do? Where should I start? I also want to start something for my daughter who is 13. Please, I would really love your help. – Anita, West Long Branch, NJ

A: No retirement savings? Join the crowd. A recent survey by BankRate.com found that 26% of those ages 50 to 65 have nothing at all saved for retirement. But even in your 50s, it’s not too late to catch up or at least improve your situation, says Robert Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute.

“You shouldn’t panic. People who start late have to forge a fiscal discipline, but there are lots of tools you can use to ramp up your savings,” says Stammers, who recently published a guide to the steps to take for a more secure retirement.

First, figure out your retirement goals. When do you want to retire? What kind of lifestyle do you want? What will your biggest expenses be? The answers will determine how much you need to save. If you want to maintain your current living standard, you’ll need to accumulate 10 to 12 times your annual income by 65, according to benchmarks calculated by Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios.

You’ll probably end up with some scary numbers. If you earn $75,000 a year, you might need $750,000 to $900,000 by age 65. That amount would provide 80% of your pre-retirement income, assuming a 5% withdrawal rate. You probably won’t need 100% of your current income, since some spending eases up after you quit working—commuting costs and lunches out—and your taxes may be lower.

If you can live on less than 70% of your pre-retirement income—and many retirees say they live just fine on 66% —you may be able to retire at 65 with a $500,000 nest egg. Delaying retirement till 67 or later can lower your savings goal further to perhaps $400,000. (All these targets assume you’ll also receive Social Security; see what you’re eligible for at SSA.gov.)

Don’t be daunted if these figures seem out of reach. Even getting part-way to the goal can make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle. To get started, find out if you have access to a 401(k)—if you do, enroll pronto and contribute the max. People over 50 are eligible for catch-up contributions, so you can sock away even more than someone younger and you’ll save on taxes. You’ll also likely benefit from an employer match, which is free money. You can use calculators like this one to see how your contributions will grow over time. Someone saving 17% of a $75,000 salary over 15 years will end up with nearly $400,000, assuming an employer match.

If you don’t have a 401(k), then set up an IRA, which will also permit catch-up savings. Still, the contribution limits for IRAs are lower than those for 401(k)s, so you’ll need funnel additional money into a taxable savings account.

To free up cash for this saving program, review your budget and find areas where you can cut. “You’ll need to make some hard decisions about your lifestyle,” says Stammers. Small moves can help, such as downgrading your cable and cellphone plans and using coupons to lower food costs. But to make real savings progress, you’ll need to go after some big costs too. Can you cut your mortgage or rent payments by downsizing or moving to a cheaper neighborhood? Can you trade in your car for a cheaper model?

You can speed up your progress by tucking away any raises or windfalls that you may receive. And think about ways you can bring in more income to save—perhaps you have a room to rent out or you may be able to earn extra cash with a part-time job.

As for your goal of saving for your daughter, it’s admirable, but you need to focus on your own retirement. In the long run, achieving your own financial security will benefit your daughter as well—you won’t need to lean on her when you’re older. And by taking these steps, Stammers says, you’ll also be a good financial role model for her.

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

MONEY Workplace

What Labor’s Win at Market Basket Means for Your Job Security

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Elise Amendola/AP

The victory at a New England grocery chain might seem like a fluke. But economic trends show that workers may be finally getting some leverage.

You don’t often hear about it, but every day, in countless workplaces, people make difficult choices to do the right thing by standing up for co-workers—often at great risk to their careers. These workers are the true heroes of this and any other Labor Day. Which is why what happened recently at Market Basket is so unusual: labor won a major victory, and it got a lot of press.

For those who don’t live in the Northeast, Market Basket is a family-owned New England grocery chain. A bitter family feud led to the ouster of the revered CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. Market Basket’s workers backed his reinstatement with protests and rallies, which ratcheted up after the company threatened to fire some of them. Public opinion was heavily in the workers’ favor. Today the majority owners of the company announced their decision to sell their shares to Demoulas, who not only gets his job back but control of the company to boot.

It’s not everyday that you see relatively low-paid supermarket workers demonstrating on behalf of their CEO. But what’s really unusual here is the display of an all-too-rare commodity in an American workplace: trust between workers and management.

The Great Recession should have been dramatic evidence to those who manage and staff the nation’s workplaces that we’re all in this together. But, of course, it wasn’t. Employers cut payrolls and benefits—remember defined benefit pensions?—some of which perhaps was unavoidable. They also outsourced jobs and even entire operations to lower-cost markets, creating armies of freelancers who work without full salaries or even a 401(k) plan. Yet many companies, if not most, continued to provide upper-management lavish pay packages and perks that further distanced them from the people whose labor was essential to their long-term success.

Some people feel workers will never recover the ground they’ve lost. But there are encouraging signs that labor may be gaining some leverage.

Like an economist who has correctly predicted nine of the past two recessions, I have repeatedly stressed that the U.S. economy is running out of workers. Even though many Baby Boomers are continuing to work past traditional retirement age, the numbers of boomers who have retired exceeds the flow of new entrants into the labor force.

Up till now labor shortages were masked by steep employment declines during the recession. But the recovery has slowly reduced unemployment. The Congressional Budget Office just forecast improved economic growth rates over the next few years. And the Wall Street Journal, among others, recently reported that shortages of unskilled labor are forcing up wage rates in some parts of the economy. And other indicators show that the job picture is brightening for those looking for work.

No question, this recovery remains very disappointing. We haven’t recovered enough lost jobs. Real wage gains remain elusive. There are few if any signs that the economic gap between rich and poor is narrowing. But even abysmal growth will, over time, lead to spot labor shortages. And with immigration reform stalled, boosting the nation’s labor supply with more newcomers is not going to happen anytime soon, which will give workers more bargaining power.

Employers may already be responding. Gallup reports that 58% of workers—both full- and part-time—are “completely satisfied” with their job security. That’s a new high, which exceeds levels just before the recession and even the levels during the dot-com euphoria of the late ’90s. Gallup also found that 71% of workers were completely satisfied with their relations with co-workers, 63% with the flexibility of their working hours, and even 60% with their boss or immediate supervisor.

Confident employees are more likely to push back against their bosses and to seek other jobs if current employers fail to meet their needs. If today’s attitudes do translate into more employee assertiveness, we can expect to see not only higher wages and improved retirement benefits, but also increased demands for restructuring jobs and job responsibilities. This would mean jobs with more flexibility, jobs that use technology to allow teams to work together from different locales, and jobs that measure outputs and judge workers on results, not the number of hours they worked or time spent at meetings in the office.

Achieving such results will stretch both managers and employees. And it will require major efforts to rebuild trust. For now, I will just wish you a happy Labor Day, with a special shout-out to the folks at Market Basket.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY Pensions

How To Be a Millionaire — and Not Even Know It

Book whose pages are hundred dollar bills
iStock

A financial adviser explains to two teachers why they don't need a lot of money in the bank to be rich.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues, 65 and 66 years old, were in my office. Their plan was to retire later this year. But they were worried.

“Our friends are retiring with Social Security, lump sum rollovers, and large investment accounts,” said Mr. Rodrigues, a school teacher from the North Shore of Boston. “All my wife and I will get is a lousy pension.”

Mr. Rodrigues continued: “A teacher’s pay is mediocre compared to what our friends earn in the private sector. We know that when we start our career. But with retirement staring us in the face, and no more regular paycheck, I’m worried.”

Public school teachers are among the worst-paid professionals in America – if you look at their paycheck alone. But when it comes to retirement packages, they have some of the best financial security in the country.

For private sector employees, the responsibility of managing retirement income sits largely on their shoulders. Sure, Social Security will provide a portion of many people’s retirement income, but for most, it is up to the retiree to figure out how to pull money from IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts, and/or bank accounts to support their lifestyle each year. Throughout retirement, many worry about running out of money or the possibility of their investments’ losing value.

Teachers, on the other hand, have a much larger safety net.

Both of the Rodrigueses worked as high school teachers for more than 30 years. Each was due a life-only pension of $60,000 upon retirement. That totaled a guaranteed lifetime income of $10,000 per month, or $120,000 per year. When one of them dies, the decedent’s pension will end, but the survivor will continue receiving his or her own $60,000 income.

The Rodrigueses told me they needed about $85,000 a year.

Surely their pension would cover their income needs.* And since the two both teach and live in Massachusetts, their pension will be exempt from state tax.

As for their balance sheet, they had no mortgage, no credit card debts, and no car payments. They had a $350,000 home, $18,000 cash in the bank, and a $134,000 investment account.

But as far as the Rodrigueses were concerned, they hadn’t saved enough.

“All my friends boast about the size of the 401(k)s they rolled over to IRAs,” Mr. Rodrigues said. “Some of them say they have more than $1 million for retirement.”

It was time to show the couple that their retirement situation wasn’t so gloomy – especially considering what their private-sector friends would need in assets to create the same income stream.

“What if I told you that your financial situation is better than most Americans?” I asked.

They thought I was joking.

Their friends, I explained, would need about $1.7 million to match their $120,000 pension income for life.

To explain my case, I pulled out a report on annuities that addressed the question of how much money a person would need at age 65 to generate a certain number of dollars in annual income.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the answer:

Annual Pension Lump Sum Needed
$48,000 $700,539
$60,000 $876,886
$75,000 $1,100,736

If you work in the private sector, are you a little jealous? If you’re a teacher, do you feel a little richer?

The Rodrigues were shocked. Soon Mr. Rodrigues calmed down and Mrs. Rodrigues smiled. Their jealousy was replaced with a renewed appreciation for the decades of service they provided to the local community.

Whether your pension is $30,000, $60,000 or $90,000, consider the amount of money that’s needed to guarantee your income. It’s probably far more than you think. And it’s not impacted by the stock market, interest rates, and world economic issues.

With a guaranteed income and the likelihood of state tax exemption on their pension, Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues felt like royalty. After all, they had just learned that they were millionaires.

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* The survivor’s $60,000 pension, of course, would be less than the $85,000 annual income the two of them say they’ll need. A few strategies to address this: (1) Expect a reduced spending need in a one-person household. (2) Draw income from the couple’s other assets. (3) Downsize and use the net proceeds from the house’s sale to supplement spending needs. (4) Select the survivor option for their pensions, rather than the life-only option. They would have a reduced monthly income check while they are both living, yet upon one of their deaths the survivor would receive a reduced survivor monthly pension benefit along with his or her own pension.
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Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Secret To Building A Bigger 401(k)

Ostrich egg in nest
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

There's growing evidence that financial advice makes a big difference in your ability to achieve a comfortable retirement.

Some people need a personal trainer to get motivated to exercise regularly. There’s growing evidence that a financial coach can help whip your retirement savings into better shape too.

People in 401(k) plans who work with financial advisors save more and have clearer financial goals than people who don’t use professional advice, according to a study out today by Natixis Global Asset Management. Workers with advisors contribute 9.5% of their annual salary to their 401(k) vs. 7.8% by those who aren’t advised, according to Natixis. That puts workers with advisors on target for the 10% to 15% of your annual income you need to put away (including company match) if you want to retire comfortably.

Natixis also found that three-quarters of 401(k) plan participants with advisors say they know what their 401(k) balance should be by the time they retire vs. half of workers without advisors who say the same.

The Natixis study follows a Charles Schwab survey out last week that found that workers 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.

Similar research was released in May by Financial Engines—that study found that 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. 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.

Granted, most of these studies come from organizations that make money by providing advice—either directly to investors or as a resource provided by 401(k) plan providers. Still, Vanguard, who provides services to both advisers and do-it-yourself investors, has published research showing that financial guidance can add value. In a 2013 research paper, Advisor’s Alpha, Vanguard said that “left alone, investors often make choices that impair their returns and jeopardize their ability to fund their long-term objectives.” According to Vanguard, advisers can help add value if they “act as wealth managers and behavioral coaches, providing discipline and experience to investors who need it.”

In other words, the value of working with an advisor, like a personal trainer, may simply be that when someone is working one-on-one with you to reach a goal you are more likely to be engaged.

Whether you want to work with a financial advisor is a personal decision. If you’re like many people who feel overwhelmed by investment choices, or don’t have a lot of time to spend on investment decisions, getting professional financial advice can help you stay on course towards your retirement goals. You can get that advice through your 401(k) plan or via a periodic check up with a fee-only financial planner or simply by putting your retirement funds into a target date fund.

Still, before you hire a pro, make sure you understand the fees. A recent study by the GAO found that 401(k) 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. If you go outside your 401(k) plan, it’s generally better to use a fee-only planner, who gets paid only for the advice provided, not commissions earned by selling financial products. You can find fee-only financial planners through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors; and for fee-only planners who charge by the hour, you can try Garrett Planning Network.

Still, if you enjoy investing, and you are willing to spend the time needed to stay on top of your finances, a do-it-yourself approach is fine. Using online calculators can give you a clearer picture of your goals, and simply knowing what your target should be can be motivating. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) consistently finds that people who calculated a savings goal were more than twice as likely to feel very confident they’ll be able to accumulate the money they need to retire and are more realistic about how much they need to save. All of which will help you reach your retirement goals.

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 retirement planning

Get These 4 Big Things Right to Retire in Comfort

Senior woman relaxing in hammock
OJO Images—Getty Images

By focusing on a few essentials, you can keep your retirement strategy on track—and reduce stress too.

Take a look at financial websites or switch on a cable TV program and you get the impression that smart retirement planning requires you to stay constantly attuned to every wiggle in the economy and the stock market—and act on it: dump one investment, buy another, re-jigger your entire portfolio…do something, anything, to react to the latest buzz. This, of course, is nonsense.

In a constantly shifting global economy, there are far too many things going on for any person—any organization for that matter—to keep tabs on, evaluate and integrate into a master retirement plan. And then do it over and over again as conditions inevitably shift. It’s just not realistic.

Even if you could stay on top of the overwhelming amount of financial information, it’s still not always clear how best to react to news. For example, a good GDP report can be a plus for stocks if investors take it as a sign that a recovery is gaining traction—or bad if it stirs fears that interest rates will rise causing stock prices to soften.

So given the complexity of today’s financial world, what can you do to better assure you’ll have a secure and comfortable retirement? My advice: Focus on getting these four Big Things right.

1. Set a target—but make sure it’s the correct one. Generally, you’ll do better at any activity—career, health, sports—if you have a goal. Retirement is no exception. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s latest Retirement Confidence Survey notes that people who’ve tried to calculate their retirement savings needs are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement than those who don’t.

Over the years, however, the target of choice seems to have become Your Number—or the specific amount of money you’ll need to fund a comfortable retirement. But Your Number isn’t a very good benchmark. It gives a false sense of precision, and can often be so big and daunting that it discourages people from saving at all. (What’s the point if I have zero saved and need $1,378,050?)

A better barometer: Keep track of the percentage of your pre-retirement income you’re on pace to replace both from Social Security and draws from your retirement savings. Granted, this figure isn’t exact either. Experts generally say that to maintain your standard of living you should try to replace anywhere from 70% to 90% of your income just prior to retirement. But it’s a number you can more easily get your head around, and more easily translate to an actual lifestyle. Many 401(k) plans include tools that allow you to see how you’re doing on this metric. If yours doesn’t, try the Retirement Income Calculator in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

2. Save at a reasonable rate. If you’re still in career mode, setting aside a sufficient amount each year in a 401(k) or other retirement accounts is the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects. What’s sufficient? I’d say 15% of salary is a good target. But if you can’t manage that, try starting at 10% and working your way up. Employer matching funds count toward that savings figure, so be sure to take full advantage of any employer largesse.

Once you reach retirement, tending your nest egg and managing the amount you spend is key. You don’t want to spend so much that you delete your savings early on; nor do you want to be so miserly that you leave this mortal coil with a big pile of cash behind you.

3. Invest like a smart layman, not a dumb pro. I’m being a bit facetious here to make a point. Professional investors and money managers are not dumb. But many of them do things that I consider dumb, like jumping from one market sector to another in a vain attempt to outguess the market or trading so often that they rack up transaction costs that depress returns.

The smart layman, on the other hand, knows that the two best ways to invest retirement savings are to set an overall mix of stocks and bonds that best reflects your appetite for risk, and then stick to low-cost investments that allow you to pocket more of the returns your savings earn. For guidance on creating a stocks-bonds blend that will generate the returns you’ll need without subjecting you to more downside risk than you can handle, you can check out this Investor Questionnaire.

4. Monitor how you’re doing, but don’t obsess about it. Retirement planning is a long-term proposition. So while you definitely want to be sure you’re making progress toward accumulating the savings you’ll need—or, if you’ve already retired, that you’ll be able to maintain your standard of living—don’t over do it. Re-assessing your progress once or twice a year by going to a retirement income calculator like the one highlighted in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox is probably sufficient.

Constant check-ups may make you more likely to tinker with (or, worse yet, dramatically overhaul) your investments or your plans. This urge to make changes is especially strong during periods of upheaval in the economy and the markets. And changes made on the fly or precipitated by an emotional reaction to duress often do more harm than good.

That said, there can be times when adjustments are called for. But when they are, you’ll typically do better by making small changes and then later re-assessing whether you need to do more rather than going with a dramatic move that could knock you even farther off course.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

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MONEY 401(k)s

Ignore This Savings Plan at Your Peril

Workers often think signing up for their 401(k) is all they need to do. But millions fail to enroll right away or raise their contributions, and they'll pay a heavy price.

Call them victims of inertia. These are folks who are slow to sign up for their employer-sponsored savings plan or who, once enrolled, don’t check back for years. Their numbers are legion, and new research paints a grim picture for their financial future.

More than a third of 401(k) plan participants have never raised the percentage of their salary that they contribute to their plan, and another 26% have not made such a change in more than a year, asset manager TIAA-CREF found. The typical saver stashes away just 8% of income—about half what financial planners recommend. Without escalating contributions, these workers will never save enough.

More than half of plan participants have not changed the way their money is invested in more than a year—including a quarter that have never changed investments, the research shows. This suggests many are not rebalancing yearly, as is generally advised, and that many others are not paying attention to their changing risk profile as they age.

At companies without automatic enrollment, a quarter of workers fail to enroll in their 401(k) for at least a year and a third wait at least six months, TIAA-CREF found. These delays may not seem like a big deal. But the lost returns over a lifetime of growth add up. Based on annual average returns of 6% and a like contribution rate over 30 years, a worker who enrolls immediately will accumulate nearly double that of a worker who starts two years later. Even a mere six-month delay is the difference between, say, $100,000 and $94,000, according to the research.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and similar plans have emerged as most people’s primary retirement savings accounts: 42% of workers say it is their only savings pool and a similar percentage say the plans are so critical they would take a pay cut to get a higher company match, according to a Fidelity survey. So any level of mismanagement is troublesome.

There is a bright spot, however—younger workers have been quicker to catch on. Millennials are the most likely group to boost their percentage contribution after each pay raise, and among millennials who do not boost the percentage, 23% say it is because they already contribute the maximum. Millennials are also most likely to check back in and adjust their investment mix.

That’s not entirely good news. In general, millennials are not investing enough in stocks, which have the highest long-term growth potential. But it reinforces the emerging picture of a generation that understands what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were slow to grasp: financial security is not a birthright. Millennials will need to save early and often—on their own—and pay attention for 30 or 40 years to enjoy a happy ending.

MONEY retirement planning

3 Easy Moves That Can Boost Your Nest Egg By 60%

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Brad Wilson—Getty Images

These relatively painless investing tweaks can put you on the path to a secure retirement, even if you just do one or two of them.

Think you’ve got to come up with a big score or magnificent coup to boost the size of your nest egg and dramatically improve your retirement prospects? You don’t. A few simple tweaks can often make the difference between scraping by and living large after you retire.

In fact, you can put yourself on the path to a much more enjoyable and secure retirement with just three relatively easy moves: saving a little more, paring investment expenses and delaying retirement a bit. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re 30 years old, earn $45,000 a year, get annual raises of 2% and contribute 10% of your pay to a 401(k) or similar plan. And let’s further assume that your retirement savings earn a 7% annual return before expenses, for a net return of 5.5% after investment fees of 1.5% a year. Based on that scenario, by age 65 you would have a nest egg valued at just under $600,000.

Not bad, and certainly more than what most people age 65 have accumulated today. But you can put yourself in a much better position at retirement time if you make the three adjustments I mentioned.

First, let’s see how much saving more can help. If you increase your savings rate from 10% a year to 12%, that move alone would boost the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $600,000 to nearly $715,000. That’s a gain of roughly $115,000, or almost 20%, right there.

Next up: investment fees. With the multitude of index funds, ETFs and other low-cost choices that are around these days, paring annual investment expenses is eminently doable. So, for the sake of this example, let’s assume you cut annual fees by just 0.5% a year from 1.5% to 1%, for an after-expense return of 6% instead of 5.5%. That reduction in expenses alone would add another 10% or so to the age-65 401(k) balance, pushing it from a little under $715,000 to nearly $790,000.

Now for the third move: delaying retirement a few years. This single adjustment has a two-barreled effect on your nest egg. Postponing gives you a chance to throw more savings into your retirement accounts and it gives the money in those accounts more time to grow before you start drawing on it. Waiting three more years to exit the workforce in the scenario above would bump the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $790,000 to just over $975,000, just short of seven-figure territory.

By the way, postponing your job-exit date can also improve your retirement outlook in another way: Each year between the ages of 62 and 70 that you delay claiming benefits, the size of your Social Security check increases roughly 7% to 8%, and that’s before annual adjustments for inflation. To see how different claiming ages might affect your Social Security benefit (and your spouse’s, if you’re married), check out the calculators in RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox.

In short, making these three moves combined would have boosted the value of your nest egg in this scenario from a little less than $600,000 to almost $1 million, an increase of some 60%. That’s pretty impressive.

Of course, you may not be able to replicate these results exactly. If you’re getting a late start in your savings regimen, increasing your savings rate may not translate to as sizeable an increase in your eventual balance. Similarly, if you do most of your saving through a 401(k) plan that doesn’t include low-cost index funds and such–although most plans do these days—you may not be able to cut investment expenses as much as you’d like. Even if you’re able to pare expenses, there’s no guarantee that each percentage point reduction will mean a percentage-point increase in return, although there’s plenty of evidence that funds with lower costs do generally perform better.

And while many people may want to work a few extra years to fatten retirement accounts, health problems or company downsizing efforts may not allow you the choice of staying on the job a few extra years.

Still, the point is that these three moves, individually or combined, can likely improve your retirement outlook at least to some extent. And they’re much more effective at enhancing your retirement prospects than the move that many mistakenly gravitate to: investing more aggressively, which is a tactic that can backfire and leave you worse off.

So re-assess your retirement planning to see which of these moves makes the most sense for you. If doing just one gives you the boost you need to assure a secure retirement, fine. But if just one won’t do it, try to do two, or all three. Come retirement time, you’ll be glad you made these tweaks.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY 401(k)s

Why Workers Would Take a Pay Cut for This Retirement Benefit

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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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