MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Whether your retirement goal is six figures or seven figures, it's harder to achieve in today's market—unless you have a plan.

A new Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey found that $1 million is the median savings balance people estimate they’ll need for retirement. And many savers have been able to reach or exceed that goal, according a report last year by the Government Accountability Office showing that some 630,000 IRA account owners have balances greater than $1 million.

But most of these people accumulated those hefty sums in an era of generous investment returns. Between 1926 and 2014, large-company stocks gained an annualized 10.1%, while intermediate-term government bond returned 5.3% annually, according to the 2015 Ibbotson Classic Yearbook. During the go-go ’90s annualized gains were even higher—18.2% for stocks and 7.2% for bonds. Today, however, forecasts like the one from ETF guru Rick Ferri call for much lower gains, say, 7% annualized for stocks and 4% or so for bonds. Which makes building a seven-figure nest egg more of a challenge.

Still, the goal remains doable, if you go about it the right way. Here are three steps that can increase your chances of pulling it off.

1. Get in the game as early as possible—and stay in as long as you can. The more years you save and invest for retirement, the better your chances of building a big nest egg. Here’s an example. If you’re 25, earn $40,000 a year, receive annual raises of 2% during your career and earn 5% a year after expenses on your savings—a not-too-ambitious return for a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds—you can accumulate a $1 million account balance by age 65 by saving a bit more than 15% of salary each year. That’s pretty much in line with the recommendation in the Boston College Center For Retirement Research’s “How Much Should People Save?” study.

Procrastinate even a bit, however, and it becomes much tougher to hit seven figures. Start at 30 instead of 25, and the annual savings burden jumps to nearly 20%, a much more challenging figure. Hold off until age 35, and you’ve got to sock away more a far more daunting 24% a year.

Of course, for a variety of reasons many of us don’t get as early a start as we’d like. In that case, you may be able to mitigate the savings task somewhat by tacking on extra years of saving and investing at the other end by postponing retirement. For example, if our hypothetical 25-year-old puts off saving until age 40, he’d have to sock away more than 30% a year to retire at 65 with $1 million. That would require a heroic saving effort. But if he saved and invested another five years instead of retiring, he could hit the $1 million mark by socking away about 22% annually—still daunting, yes, but not nearly as much as 30%. What’s more, even if he fell short of $1 million, those extra years of work would significantly boost his Social Security benefit and he could safely draw more money from his nest egg since it wouldn’t have to last as long.

2. Leverage every saving advantage you can. The most obvious way to do this is to make the most of employer matching funds, assuming your 401(k) offers them, as most do. Although many plans are more generous, the most common matching formula is 50 cents per dollar contributed up to 6% of pay for a 3% maximum match. That would bring the required savings figure to get to $1 million by 65 down a manageable 16% or so for our fictive 25-year-old, even if he delayed saving a cent until age 30. Alas, a new Financial Engines report finds that the typical 401(k) participant misses out on $1,336 in matching funds each year.

There are plenty of other ways to bulk up your nest egg. Even if you’re covered by a 401(k) or other retirement plan, chances are you’re also eligible to contribute to some type of IRA. (See Morningstar’s IRA calculator.) Ideally, you’ll shoot for the maximum ($5,500 this year; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older), but even smaller amounts can add up. For example, invest $3,000 a year between the ages of 25 and 50 and you’ll have just over $312,000 at 65 even if you never throw in another cent, assuming a 5% annual return.

If you’ve maxed out contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, you can boost after-tax returns in taxable accounts by focusing on tax-efficient investments, such as index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds, that minimize the portion of your return that goes to the IRS. Clicking on the “Tax” tab in any fund’s Morningstar page will show you how much of its return a fund gives up to taxes; this Morningstar article offers three different tax-efficient portfolios for retirement savers.

3. Pare investment costs to the bone. You can’t force the financial markets to deliver a higher rate of return, but you can keep more of whatever return the market delivers by sticking to low-cost investing options like broad-based index funds and ETFs. According to a recent Morningstar fee study, the average asset-weighted expense ratio for index funds and ETFs was roughly 0.20% compared with 0.80% for actively managed mutual funds. While there’s no assurance that every dollar you save in expenses equals an extra dollar of return, low-expense funds to tend to outperform their high-expense counterparts.

So, for example, if instead of paying 1% a year in investment expenses, the 25-year-old in the example above pays 0.25%—which is doable with a portfolio of index funds and ETFs—that could boost his annual return from 5% to 5.75%, in which case he’d need to save just 13% of pay instead of 15% to build a $1 million nest egg by age 65, if he starts saving at age 25—or just under 22% instead of 24%, if he procrastinates for 10 years. In short, parting investment expenses is the equivalent of saving a higher percentage of pay without actually having to reduce what you spend.

People can disagree about whether $1 million is a legitimate target. Clearly, many retirees will need less, others will require more. But whether you’ve set $1 million as a target or you just want to build the largest nest egg you can, following the three guidelines will increase your chances of achieving your goal, and improve your prospects for a secure retirement.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Save For Retirement When You Don’t Have a 401(k)

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: The company I work for doesn’t offer a 401(k). I am young professional who wants to start saving for retirement but I don’t have a lot of money. Where should I start? – Abraham Weiser, New York City

A: Millions of workers are in the same boat. One-quarter of full-time employees are at companies that don’t offer a retirement plan, according to government data. The situation is most common at small firms: Only 50% of workers at companies with fewer than 100 employees have 401(k)s vs. 82% of workers at medium and large companies.

Certainly, 401(k)s are one of the best ways to save for retirement. These plans let you make contributions directly from your paycheck, and you can put away a large amount ($18,000 in 2015 for those 49 and younger), which can grow tax sheltered.

But there are retirement savings options beyond the 401(k) that also offer attractive tax benefits, says Ryan P. Tuttle, a certified financial planner at Connecticut Wealth Management in Farmington, Ct.

Since you’re just getting started, your first step is to get a handle on your spending and cash flow, which will help you determine how much you can really afford to put away for retirement. If you have a lot of high-rate debt—say, student loans or credit cards—you should also be paying that down. But if you have to divert cash to pay off loans, you won’t be able to put away a lot for savings.

That doesn’t mean you should wait to put money away for retirement. Even if you can only save a small amount, perhaps $50 or $100 a week, do it now. The earlier you get going, the more time that money will have to compound, so even a few dollars here or there can make a big difference in two or three decades.

You can give an even bigger boost to your savings by opting for a tax-sheltered savings plan like an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which protects your gains from Uncle Sam, at least temporarily.

These come in two flavors: traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. In a traditional IRA, you pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement. Depending on your income, you may also qualify for a tax deduction on your IRA contribution. With a Roth IRA, it’s the opposite. You put in money after paying taxes but you can withdraw it tax free once you retire.

The downside to IRAs is that you can only stash $5,500 away each year, for those 49 and younger. And to make a full contribution to a Roth, your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $131,000 a year if you’re single or $193,000 for those married filing jointly.

If your pay doesn’t exceed the income limit, a Roth IRA is your best option, says Tuttle. When you’re young and your income is low, your tax rate will be lower. So the upfront tax break you get with a traditional IRA isn’t as big of a deal.

Ideally, you’ll contribute the maximum $5,500 to your IRA. But if you don’t have a chunk of money like that, have funds regularly transferred from your bank account to an IRA until you reach the $5,500. You can set up an IRA account easily with a low-fee provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price.

Choose low-cost investments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs); you can find choices on our Money 50 list of recommended funds and ETFs. Most younger investors will do best with a heavier concentration in stocks than bonds, since you’ll want growth and you have time to ride out market downturns. Still, your asset allocation should be geared to your individual risk tolerance.

If you end up maxing out your IRA, you can stash more money in a taxable account. Look for tax-efficient investments that generate little or no taxable gains—index funds and ETFs, again, may fill the bill.

Getting an early start in retirement savings is smart. But you should also be investing in your human capital. That means continuing to get education and adding to your skills so your earnings rise over time. Your earnings grow most quickly in those first decades of your career. “The more you earn, the more you can put away for retirement,” says Tuttle. As you move on to better opportunities—with any luck—you’ll land at a company that offers a great 401(k) plan, too.

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

Read next: Quick Guide to How Much You Need to Retire

MONEY stocks

14 Simple Ways to Be a Smarter (and Richer) Investor

brain made out of gold bars
Hiroshi Watanabe—Getty Images

Picking stocks is hard—and you still might not beat throwing darts at the stock pages. Here some easier ways to get yourself an edge.

1. Don’t pay 33% of your money in fees. Mutual fund charges look small, but the cost of paying an extra 1% a year in fees is that you give up 33% of your potential wealth over the course of 40 years. An index fund like Schwab Total Stock Market SCHWAB TOTAL STOCK MARKET SWTSX -0.21% can keep your expenses below 0.1%, compared with over 1% for many stock funds.

2. Mix your own simple plan. Four very low-cost index funds, recommended in the Money 50, deliver all the world’s major markets. (See graphic below.) The more aggressive you are, the more you can tilt toward stocks.

Source: MONEY research

3. Or pick just one fund. You don’t have to be fancy to be an effective investor. A classic balanced mix (about 60% stocks/40% bonds) provides plenty of equities’ upside, with less pain during crashes. The Vanguard Wellington VANGUARD WELLINGTON INV VWELX -0.3% balanced fund has earned an annualized 8% over a decade.

4. Or hire a robo-adviser. Outside of a 401(k), if you want a plan that’s more tailored to you, web-based automated investment services can put you in a mix of low-cost index funds and then rebalance as you go. Betterment and Wealthfront stand out as low-cost options, charging 0.35% of assets or less.

5. Patch the holes in a 401(k). Many workplace plans offer at least an S&P 500 or total stock market index fund as a low cost option for buying U.S. stocks. But if your plan doesn’t offer good choices in other asset classes, such as bonds and foreign stocks, diversify elsewhere. Save enough to get the company match. Then fund an IRA, where you can choose which bond funds or foreign funds to go with.

6. While you’re at it, dump company stock. About $1 out of every $7 in 401(k)s is invested in employer shares. But your income is already tied to that company. Your retirement shouldn’t be too.

7. Pick an asset, any asset. You can get into trouble by being too clever by half. The average investor has barely beaten inflation in the past 20 years as a result of buying trendy assets high and selling low. Forget all that. As the chart below shows, you’re better off buying and holding almost any major asset class.

Sources: Bloomberg, Morningstar, DalbarNotes: Returns are through Dec. 31, 2013.

8. Be patient with funds. Some well-known bargain-minded funds, such as Dodge & Cox Stock DODGE & COX STOCK FUND DODGX -0.02% , have struggled this past year. That doesn’t mean you should flee. True value funds refuse to buy popular—read expensive—stocks, so they often lag in frothy times. But over the past 15 years, Dodge & Cox has outperformed its peers by 2.5 percentage points a year and the S&P by more than four points.

9. Be stingy with funds. Cheapskates know index funds aren’t their only options. Actively managed blue-chip stock funds with an expense ratio of 0.35% or less have returned 8.5% over the past decade. That’s 0.5 percentage point better annually than the S&P 500. A great option: Vanguard Equity-Income VANGUARD EQUITY INCOME INV VEIPX -0.4% , charging 0.29%, has outpaced the market’s gains by 3.5 points annually over the past 15 years.

10. Rebalance? Maybe not. Routinely resetting your stocks and bonds to their original levels “is a nice idea in theory,” says planner Phil Cook. But “if you rebalance too often, you can give up a lot of potential returns.” In your twenties and thirties, when you’re almost all in stocks, you can skip it. As you age, though, gradually increase the frequency of rebalancing to every few years.

11. Break up with your high-cost adviser. Stock and bond returns are expected to be muted in the coming decade, so cutting advisory fees—often 1% of assets—matters. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services charges just 0.3% of assets. Some tech-based services, such as Betterment and Wealthfront, charge even less.

12. Put your portfolios together… If you hold a third of your 401(k) in bonds, your mix may be riskier than you think if your spouse is 100% in stocks. Coordinating also improves your options. If your spouse’s plan has a better foreign fund, focus your international allocation there.

13. …and your assets in the right place. Once you’ve maxed out your IRAs and 401(k)s, use taxable accounts for the most tax-efficient investments in your mix. They include index and buy-and-hold equity funds that trade infrequently and generate few capital gains distributions.

14. Take a fresh look at a classic. You’ve now built up enough assets that advisers will be eager to sell you clever ideas to beat the market. Before you bite, read the 2015 edition of A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Burton Malkiel has updated his skeptical investment guide to take on the latest new flavor, “smart” ETFs. If a fund has a greater return, says Malkiel, it’s probably because it’s taking on more risk.

Adapted from “101 Ways to Build Wealth,” by Daniel Bortz, Kara Brandeisky, Paul J. Lim, and Taylor Tepper, which originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of MONEY magazine.

MONEY retirement planning

Here’s Your 3-Step 15-Minute Retirement Plan

With a plan, you're likely to save four times as much. And it doesn't have to be complex to be effective.

Want to get serious about preparing for retirement? Get a plan. A 2014 Wells Fargo survey found that middle-class Americans who have a written retirement plan saved four times as much as those without one. Fortunately, a plan doesn’t have to be complex to be effective. In fact, putting together a perfectly acceptable one can be as easy as 1-2-3.

Step #1: Pick a savings target. Don’t get hung up on trying to identify the exact amount need to save. When you’re saving for a retirement that’s many years off in the future, there are too many unknowables to be that precise. To get things rolling, I suggest you shoot for 15% of pay, which is the figure cited for the typical household by the Boston College Center For Retirement Research in a recent paper. If that amount seems too daunting, then start at 10% and boost that figure by one percentage point each year until you hit 15% of salary.

The important thing, though, is to push yourself a bit when it comes to saving, as there may be some years when unexpected expenses or a job layoff prevent you from reaching your savings goal. Indeed, when researchers for TIAA-Cref’s Ready-to-Retire survey asked retirees last year what they wished they had done differently to prepare for retirement, almost half said they wish they had saved more of their paycheck for retirement. They also expressed regret that they hadn’t started saving sooner, So once you pick your target saving rate, start stashing your dough away immediately.

One more note about your savings rate: If you contribute to a 401(k) or other workplace plan and your employer matches a portion of what you save, those employer matching funds should count toward your savings target. So if your company contributes 50% of the amount you save up to 6% of salary for a 3% match—a typical formula—you would have to save just 12% of salary to reach a 15%.

Step #2: Settle on your investing strategy. This step trips up people for several reasons. Some get flustered because they know little or nothing about investing. Others think they’ve got to sift through dozens of investments to find the “best” of the lot. Still others feel that they aren’t doing an adequate job investing for retirement unless they’ve stuffed their portfolio with every possible investment representing every conceivable asset class known to man.

I have one word for people worried about such issues: chill. Investing doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, whether you’re a neophyte or a grizzled veteran of the financial markets, simpler is better when it comes to building a retirement portfolio.

Here’s all you have to do. First, restrict yourself to low-cost index funds. You can build a diversified portfolio with just two funds: a total U.S. stock market index fund and a total U.S. bond market index fund. If you want to get fancy, you can throw in a total international stock index fund. (If you prefer, you can use the ETF versions of such funds instead.) You can find these investments at such firms as Vanguard, Fidelity and Schwab.

Second, settle on a stocks-bonds mix that’s appropriate given your tolerance for risk. You can get a recommended mix by going to the Investor Questionnaire-Allocation Tool in RealDealRetirement’s Toolbox. Once you’ve settled on a stocks-bonds mix, leave it alone, except perhaps to rebalance every year or so. Or, if you can’t see yourself building even a simple portfolio with a few funds, just invest in a target-date retirement fund. This type of fund—available from the same three firms mentioned above—gives you a fully diversified portfolio that becomes more conservative as you approach and enter retirement.

Step 3: Do an initial assessment. Now it’s time to see where you stand. That may seem premature if you’re really just getting started. But the idea is you want to get a sense of what kind of retirement you’ll end up with if you follow the course you’ve set in steps one and two. Think of it as establishing a baseline so you can gauge whether or not you’re making progress when you re-do this evaluation every 12 months or so.

Doing this assessment is pretty simple. Go to a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo analysis to make projections, plug in such information as your age, salary, savings rate, the amount, if any, you already have stashed in retirement accounts, the stocks-bonds mix you arrived at in step 2, the age at which you intend to retire, the percentage of pre-retirement income you’ll require in retirement (80% or so is a decent estimate) and how many years you expect to live in retirement (I suggest to age 95 to be on the conservative side)…and voila! The calculator will churn a few seconds and forecast the probability that you’ll be able to retire on schedule given how much you’re saving and how you’re investing.

Generally, you’d like to see a probability of 80% or higher, although you shouldn’t freak out if your chances are much lower. The point of this exercise is to see where you stand now so you can adjust your planning to tilt the odds of success more in your favor, if that’s necessary. The most effective adjustment is saving more, but there are other possibilities, such as staying on the job longer, working part-time in retirement, maximizing Social Security benefits and relocating to a lower cost area once you retire.

Do you have to write all this down to get the benefit of this plan? I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary. But I think it’s a good idea to jot down your target savings rate and the asset mix you’ve decided on if for no other reason than doing so can make you feel more committed to following through. You should also save a digital or hard copy each time you do an evaluation so you can see whether you’re making progress or backsliding.

You’ll want to refine and tweak this plan as you go along, but for now the most important thing is to get started. Because the sooner you set a savings rate and start funding your retirement accounts, the better your chances of having a secure and enjoyable retirement down the road.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY index funds

The One Investment You Need Most For A Successful Retirement

two men walking toward hole on golf course
Chris Ryan—Getty Images

Market returns may be lower in future. But you can make the most of them by focusing on low-cost funds and ETFs.

Whether you’re still building your nest egg or tapping it for income, you need to re-evaluate your investing strategy in light of lower projected investment returns in the years ahead. The upshot: Unless you’re putting most of your money into low-cost index funds and ETFs, you may very well be jeopardizing your shot at a secure retirement.

As if we needed more confirmation that future investment gains will likely be anemic, investment adviser and ETF guru Rick Ferri recently unveiled his long-term forecast for stock and bond returns. It’s sobering to say the least. Assuming 2% yearly inflation, he estimates stocks and bonds will deliver annualized gains of roughly 7% and 4% respectively over the next few decades. That’s quite a comedown from the 10% for stocks and 5% or so for bonds investors had come to expect in past decades.

Given such undersized projected rates of return, you can’t afford to give up any more of your gain to fees than you absolutely have to if you want to have a reasonable shot at attaining and maintaining a secure retirement. Which means broad-based index funds or ETFs with low annual expenses should be the investment of choice for individual investors’ portfolios.

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Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re 25, earn $40,000 a year, get 2% annual raises and plan to retire at 65. Back when stocks were churning out annualized gains of 10% and bonds were delivering 5% yearly, you might reasonably expect an annualized return of 8% or so from a 60% stocks-40% bonds portfolio. Assuming 1.25% in annual expenses—about average for mutual funds, according to Morningstar—that left you with an annual return of roughly 6.75%. Given that return, you would have to save about 11% of salary through0ut your career to end up with a $1 million nest egg at retirement.

But look at how much more you have to stash away each year if returns come in at current low projections. If stocks return 7% annually and bonds generate gains of 4%, a 60-40 portfolio would return roughly 6%. Deduct 1.25% in expenses, and you’re looking at an annualized return of 4.75%. With that return, the 25-year-old above would have to save 17% of salary annually to accumulate $1 million by age 65. In short, he would have to increase the percentage of salary he devotes to saving by almost 55% each year, enough to require a major lifestyle adjustment.

There’s not much you can do to boost the returns the market delivers. But you do have some control over investment expenses. Suppose that instead of shelling out 1.25% a year in expenses, our 25-year-old lowers annual costs to 0.25% by investing exclusively in low-cost index funds and ETFs. That would boost his potential return on a 60-40 portfolio by one percentage point from 4.75% to 5.75%. With that extra percentage point in return, our hypothetical 25-year-old would be able to build a $1 million nest egg at 65 by saving 13% of salary annually instead of 17% year. Granted, 13% is still more than the 11% he had to save when he was paying 1.25% annually in expenses and stocks and bonds were delivering higher historical rates of return. But investing low-fee index funds and ETFs clearly gives him a better shot at building a seven-figure nest egg than he would have with funds that charge higher expenses.

Check Out: 10 Smart Ways To Boost Your Investment Results

Holding the rein on expenses in the face of expected subpar returns is just as important when you’re tapping your nest egg. For example, if you follow a systematic withdrawal system like the 4% rule—i.e., draw 4%, or $40,000, initially from a $1 million 60% stocks-40% bonds portfolio and increase that amount each year for inflation—reducing annual expenses by a percentage point will significantly increase the probability that your nest egg will last 30 years or more.

Can I guarantee that you’ll be able to duplicate these results exactly? Of course not. Given the choices in your 401(k) or other retirement accounts, you may not be able to reduce expenses as much as in these scenarios. Even if you can, there’s no assurance that every cent you save in expenses will translate to an equivalent gain in returns (although research shows funds with lower costs do tend to outperform their high-cost counterparts).

And let’s not forget that we’re dealing with projections here. They may very well get it wrong. Even if they’re spot on, you won’t earn that annualized return year after year. Some years will be higher, others lower, which will affect both the size of the nest egg you accumulate as well as how long it will last. It’s also possible that you may be able to generate a higher return than the market ultimately delivers (although doing so typically means taking on more risk).

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But the point is this: If returns do come in lower than in the past—which seems likely given the current low level of interest rates—the more you stick to low-cost index funds and ETFs, the better the shot that you’ll have at accumulating the savings you’ll need to maintain your standard of living in retirement, and the more likely your savings will last at least as long as you do.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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The Single Best (And Easiest) Way to Boost Your Investment Returns

stacks of cash, one higher than the others
GP Kidd—Getty Images

Brokerage firms are fighting to claim the low-cost label. You can do it yourself, without the stress, with these simple moves.

Two financial services firms—Charles Schwab and Wealthfront—duked it out in public last week over whose automated investing service is a better deal. Some may see such sparring as unseemly, but I think it’s great. Such sniping will focus more attention on the surest way to boost returns—cutting investing fees.

In case you missed it, Wealthfront, a “robo-advisor” that uses algorithms to provide very low-cost investment advice, raised a stink last week after Schwab introduced Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, a similar investment service that charges no advisory fee. Wealthfront objected to the ways Schwab earns revenue from Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, including putting a portion of recommended portfolios in “smart beta” ETFs that charge somewhat higher fees than traditional ETFs as well as in cash on which Schwab currently pays a very low rate of return. Schwab defended itself, and lobbed some charges of its own.

I don’t want to bore you any more than I already have with the details of this dust-up (although if you go to the RealDealRetirement Toolbox and scroll down, you’ll find links to their respective salvos). I do, however, want to suggest three lessons you can take from this fee fracas to improve your investing results and increase your odds of achieving a secure retirement.

1. Focus on fees, but don’t obsess over every basis point. You don’t have to work very hard to reap the benefits of low-cost investing. For example, moving from a portfolio of funds whose expense ratios average, say, 1% a year to a portfolio of index funds or ETFs with average expenses of 0.25% can gain you an extra $40,000 or so over the course of 20 years on an initial investment of $100,000, assuming a 6% annual return before expenses. Could you do even better? Sure. These days you can find some ETFs that charge as little as 0.04%.

But at some point shaving off another few basis points here, another couple there and extrapolating the results decades and decades into the future becomes a “fun with numbers” spreadsheet exercise. So by all means create a portfolio of low-cost index funds or ETFs. But don’t feel that you’re losing out if you don’t have the absolute lowest-cost portfolio around.

2. Don’t fritter your savings away by overpaying elsewhere. While you don’t want to devote your life to squeezing out every extra basis point of fees, you don’t want to let savings unnecessarily slip through your fingers either. For example, if you work with a financial adviser, you typically pay two layers of fees: those on your investments, and the fees you pay to the adviser. Depending on how much that adviser charges, much of the savings you reap by moving from a portfolio of high- to low-cost funds could go into the adviser’s pocket instead of yours.

That’s not to say that an adviser who charges 1% or more a year to invest your money is ripping you off. But you need to look at the total amount you’re paying in fees. And you also have to consider whether the services you’re getting from an adviser (investment selection, allocation advice, rebalancing, budgeting, whatever) are worth the money you’re shelling out, not to mention whether you might get the same services elsewhere at a lower cost.

hould You Take Social Security Early and Invest it—Or Claim Later For A Higher Benefit? – See more at: http://realdealretirement.com/#sthash.cWYgUfTX.dpuf

3. Don’t be awed by “white papers.” If you go to the sites of many robo-advisers, you’ll find white papers and/or methodology statements that quantify in mind-numbing detail how these investing algorithms work and why they supposedly generate better portfolios. Hey, I like modern portfolio theory as much as the next guy, and I certainly believe that there are advantages to asset allocation, rebalancing and harvesting losses in taxable accounts. But I also know that you’ve got to take a lot of this number-crunching with a big ol’ grain of salt. The future may unfold differently than the past, and there’s no assurance that what worked before will work again—or generate comparable results even if it does.

Bottom line: Techniques like mean-variance optimization, rebalancing and tax-loss selling may very well enhance performance over the long run (although I’m skeptical about portfolios that load up on lots of funds and asset classes). But ultimately, the surest way to increase your shot at higher returns and achieving your financial goals is to build a broadly diversified portfolio and keep costs down. And that’s true whether you’re investing on your own or getting help from an adviser, human or not.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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The Smart Way To Invest A Big Fat Inheritance or Rollover

 

MONEY IRAs

There’s Free Money for IRA Rollovers—Here’s How to Invest It

Should you take the money and run? Only if you choose the right low-cost funds.

Back in the day, you could walk into a bank to open a new account and walk out with a free toaster.

Today, you can get anywhere from $50 to $2,500 for rolling over a 401(k) into an Individual Retirement Account, or just by moving an IRA from another financial institution.

But since banks are not in the habit of giving away money, you need to ask: What is the catch?

IRA providers use cash incentives, which are cheaper than advertising or direct mail, to acquire new customers. The latest marketing twist comes from Fidelity Investments, which is offering an “IRA Match” program to new and existing customers who transfer a Roth, traditional or rollover IRA to the company. Rollovers from 401(k)s are not eligible.

Fidelity will match your contributions up to 10% for the first three years that the account is open, although you would have to roll over a whopping $500,000 or more to get that level of match.

For most people, the match will be much smaller. A rollover of $50,000, for example, would qualify for a 1.5% match in each of the next three years. That is worth $260 over three years if you max out your annual contributions at $5,500, or $290 if you are over age 50 and eligible to make additional $1,000 catch-up contributions.

Fidelity is pitching this as the way to encourage higher levels of retirement savings, the way many employers make matching contributions to workers’ 401(k) plans.

“When you look at what really works in the retirement space, you can see that the employer match is a major factor driving participation,” says Lauren Brouhard, Fidelity Investments’ senior vice president for retirement. “We wanted to take an element of what works in the workplace and bring it to the IRA.”

Similar deals abound. For example, Charles Schwab Corp frequently runs promotions offering up to $2,500 for opening a new account, including rollovers from 401(k)s. Ally Bank will pay a $100 bonus for rolling between $25,000 and $50,000, and more for larger rollovers. Just do a Web search for “IRA cash bonus” to see how pervasive the practice has become.

Should you take the money and run? Perhaps, but do not let the cash distract you from more fundamental considerations.

For starters, do not roll funds out of a workplace 401(k) plan into an IRA if it charges higher fees. You should also make sure that the new provider offers the type of retirement investments you are looking for.

If you are rolling over to a mutual fund or brokerage company, the cardinal rule is to make sure your new provider does not earn back the bonus by parking you in high-cost active mutual funds or managed portfolio services.

“It’s a free lunch, but not if you yield to the temptations,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA, a wealth management firm that offers low-cost IRA portfolio management. “You have to avoid falling prey to the sirens of active management.”

Instead, manage your portfolio yourself by creating a portfolio of inexpensive passive index funds or exchange traded funds, which are available through their providers’ brokerage services.

To illustrate, he suggested a portfolio of four Vanguard ETFs whose fees are each below 20 basis points: Total U.S. Stock Market, Total International stocks, Total Bond Market and Total International Bond.

You can view Tuchman’s sample portfolios here.

Read next: 5 Signs You Will Become a Millionaire

MONEY stocks

The Problem With Stock Market Games? They Aren’t Boring Enough

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Alamy

If you think investing is fun, you're probably doing it wrong.

People often say the stock market is a game, but a growing number of companies are taking that literally. A slew of new apps, like Ivstr, Kapitall, and Bux (the latter isn’t yet available in the U.S.), say they can teach you about investing by turning it into a short-term competition, complete with scoreboards and points.

The apps keep everything simple by having users compete to predict whether a stock, or portfolio stocks, will go up or down in the next few hours, days, or weeks. (Ivstr goes up to a year.) A few try and crank up the excitement a little further with head-to-head “battles” against friends and little encouragements like “OMG!” after a player completes a trade. It’s all fake money at first, but Bux and Kapitall let users move on to real dollars.

These ideas all sound kind of fun. But do they really teach what you need to know about investing? Stock market apps tend to center around choosing a group of stocks and trading frequently based on their performance.

The trouble is, you’ll do better with your real-life money if you skip all the trading and just buy and hold a low-cost, diversified fund. Research has shown even hedge funds run by market pros can’t beat the market in the long term. Mutual funds mostly don’t beat the index either. Warren Buffett is currently winning his $1 million bet that an S&P 500 index fund will outperform a fund of hedge funds, net of all fees and expense, over just one decade.

You can actually measure how much investors as group cost themselves by trading. According to the mutual fund research group Morningstar, the average U.S. equity mutual fund earned an annualized 8.2% over the 10 years from 2004 through 2013. But the the typical fund investor (as measured by adjusting for cash flows in and out of funds) earned only 6.5%, thanks to poorly timed fund trades. Its hard to imagine retail stock traders are any better at guessing market trends.

Still, maybe there is something to this whole investing as a game idea. We just need to tweak it a little.

Allow me to introduce MONEY’s forthcoming iPhone app, RspnsblFnnclPlnnr. Here’s how it works:

  • Instead of having users pick stocks and watch the market, you spend the first hour looking for funds with the lowest fees and setting up a scheduled deposit. Then it would close.
  • The game will let you come back to check your accounts once a year, to rebalance your stock and bond allocations. But each additional viewing would cost 1000 Investo-Points.
  • Every time you try to trade a stock, the game’s in-app avatar will shake its head at you and ask if you really, really want to do that.
  • You can compete with friends! Thirty years from now, you’ll all get badges showing your huge balances, which you can post on Facebook. Because there will definitely still be a Facebook.

Okay, I suspect my app will have trouble getting past the first round of venture funding. It’s not exactly the most exciting game in the world. Except for the parts where you get to send your kids to college and retire with a decent nest egg. That part is pretty fun.

MONEY portfolio

5 Ways to Invest Smarter at Any Age

dollar bill lifting barbells
Comstock Images—Getty Images

The key is settling on the right stock/bond mix and sticking to your guns. Here's how.

Welcome to Day 4 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. So far, you’ve seen what shape you’re in, gotten yourself motivated, and checked your credit. Today, tackle your investment mix.

The key to lifetime fitness is a powerful core—strong and flexible abdominal and back muscles that help with everything else you do and protect against aches and injuries as you age. In your financial life, your core is your long-term savings, and strengthening it is simple: Settle on the right stock/bond mix, favor index funds to keep costs low, fine-tune your approach periodically, and steer clear of gimmicks such as “nontransparent ETFs” or “hedge funds for small investors”—Wall Street’s equivalent of workout fads like muscle-toning shoes.

Here’s the simple program:

1. Know Your Target

If you don’t already have a target allocation for your age and risk tolerance, steal one from the pie charts at T. Rowe Price’s Asset Allocation Planner. Or take one minute to fill out Vanguard’s mutual fund recommendation tool. You’ll get a list of Vanguard index funds, but you can use the categories to shop anywhere.

2. Push Yourself When You’re Young

Investors 35 and under seem to be so concerned about a market meltdown that they have almost half their portfolios in cash, a 2014 UBS report found. Being too conservative early on—putting 50% in stocks vs. 80%—reduces the likely value of your portfolio at age 65 by 30%, according to Vanguard research. For starting savers, 90% is a commonly recommended stock stake.

3. Do a U-turn at Retirement

According to Wade Pfau of the American College and Michael Kitces of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, you have a better shot at a secure retirement if you hold lots of stocks when you’re young, lots of bonds at retirement, and then gradually shift back to stocks. Their studies found that starting retirement with 20% to 30% in stocks and raising that by two percentage points a year for 15 years helps your money last, especially if you run into a bear market early on.

4. Be Alert for Hidden Risks

Once you’ve been investing for several years and have multiple accounts, perfecting your investment mix gets trickier. Here’s a simple way to get the full picture of your portfolio.

Dig out statements for all your investment accounts—401(k), IRA, spouse’s 401(k), old 401(k), any brokerage accounts. At Morningstar.com, find “Instant X-Ray” under Portfolio Tools. Enter the ticker symbol of each fund you own, along with the dollar value. (Oops. Your 401(k) has separately managed funds that lack tickers? Use the index fund that’s most similar to your fund’s benchmark.)

Clicking “Show Instant X-Ray” will give you a full analysis, including a detailed stock/bond allocation, a geographic breakdown of your holdings, and your portfolio’s overall dividend yield and price/earnings ratio. Look deeper to see how concentrated you are in cyclical stocks, say, or tech companies—a sign you might not be as diversified as you think or taking risks you didn’t even know about.

5. Don’t Weigh Yourself Every Day

Closely monitoring your progress may help with an actual fitness plan. For financial fitness, it’s better to lay off looking at how you’re doing. A growing body of research finds that well-diversified investors who check their balances infrequently are more likely to end up with bigger portfolios, says Michaela Pagel, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. One reason: Pagel says savers who train themselves not to peek are more likely to invest in stocks. And research by Dalbar finds that investors’ tendency to panic sell in bear markets has cut their average annual returns to 5% over the past 20 years, while the S&P 500 earned 9.2%.

When you have the urge to sell, remind yourself that your time horizon is at least 20 years, says Eric Toya, a financial planner in Redondo Beach, Calif. “Outcome-oriented investors agonize over every up-and-down whim of the market and make poor timing decisions,” he says. “If your process is sound, you don’t need to panic.”

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