MONEY 401(k)s

How to Build a $1 Million Retirement Plan

$100 bricks and mortar
Money (photo illustration)—Getty Images(2)

The number of savers with seven-figure workplace retirement plans has doubled over the past two years. Here's how you can become one of them.

The 401(k) was born in 1981 as an obscure IRS regulation that let workers set aside pretax money to supplement their pensions. More than three decades later, this workplace plan has become America’s No. 1 way to save. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 65% of those earning $75,000 or more expect their 401(k)s, IRAs, and other savings to be a major source of income in retirement. Only 34% say the same for a pension.

Thirty-plus years is also roughly how long you’ll prep for retirement (assuming you don’t get serious until you’ve been on the job a few years). So we’re finally seeing how the first generation of savers with access to a 401(k) throughout their careers is making out. For an elite few, the answer is “very well.” The stock market’s recent winning streak has not only pushed the average 401(k) plan balance to a record high, but also boosted the ranks of a new breed of retirement investor: the 401(k) millionaire.

Seven-figure 401(k)s are still rare—less than 1% of today’s 52 million 401(k) savers have one, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)—but growing fast. At Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) plan providers, the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012, topping 72,000 at the end of 2014. Schwab reports a similar trend. And those tallies don’t count the two-career couples whose combined 401(k)s are worth $1 million.

Workers with high salaries have a leg up, for sure. But not all members of the seven-figure club are in because they make big bucks. At Fidelity thousands earning less than $150,000 a year have passed the million-dollar mark. “You don’t have to make a million to save a million in your 401(k),” says Meghan Murphy, a director at Fidelity.

You do have to do all the little things right, from setting and sticking to a high savings rate to picking a suitable stock and bond allocation as you go along. To join this exclusive club, you need to study the masters: folks who have made it, as well as savers who are poised to do the same. What you’ll learn are these secrets for building a $1 million 401(k).

1) Play the Long Game

Fidelity’s crop of 401(k) millionaires have contributed an above-average 14% of their pay to a 401(k) over their careers, and they’ve been at it for a long time. Most are over 50, with the average age 60.

Those habits are crucial with a 401(k), and here’s why: Compounding—earning money on your reinvested earnings as well as on your original savings—is the “secret sauce” to make it to a million. “Compounding gives you a big boost toward the end that can carry you to the finish line,” says Catherine Golladay, head of Schwab’s 401(k) participant services. And with a 401(k), you pay no taxes on your investment income until you make withdrawals, putting even more money to work.

You can save $18,000 in a 401(k) in 2015; $24,000 if you’re 50 or older. While generous, those caps make playing catch-up tough to do in a plan alone. You need years of steady saving to build up the kind of balance that will get a big boost from compounding in the home stretch.

Here’s how to do it:

Make time your ally. Someone who earns $50,000 a year at age 30, gets 2% raises, and puts away 14% of pay on average will have $547,000 by age 55—a hefty sum that with continued contributions will double to $1.1 million by 65, assuming 6% annualized returns. Do the same starting at age 35, and you’ll reach $812,000 at 65.

Yet saving aggressively from the get-go is a tall order. You may need several years to get your savings rate up to the max. Stick with it. Increase your contribution rate with every raise. And picking up part-time or freelance work and earmarking the money for retirement can push you over the top.

Milk your employer. For Fidelity 401(k) millionaires, employer matches accounted for a third of total plan contributions. You should squirrel away as much of the boss’s cash as you can.

According to HR association WorldatWork, at a third of companies 50% of workers don’t contribute enough to the company 401(k) plans to get the full match. That’s a missed opportunity to collect free money. A full 80% of 401(k) plans offer a match, most commonly 50¢ for each $1 you contribute, up to 6% of your salary, but dollar-for-dollar matches are a close second.

Broaden your horizons. As the graphic below shows, power-saving in your forties or fifties may bump you up against your 401(k)’s annual limits. “If you get a late start, in order to hit the $1 million mark, you will need to contribute extra savings into a brokerage account,” says Dirk Quayle, president of NextCapital, which provides portfolio-management software to 401(k) plans.

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Money

2) Act Like a Company Lifer

The Fidelity 401(k) millionaires have spent an average of 34 years with the same employer. That kind of staying power is nearly unheard-of these days. The average job tenure with the same employer is five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only half of workers over age 55 have logged 10 or more years with the same company. But even if you can’t spend your career at one place—and job switching is often the best way to boost your pay—you can mimic the ways steady employment builds up your retirement plan.

Here’s how to do it:

Consider your 401(k) untouchable. A fifth of 401(k) savers borrowed against their plan in 2013, according to EBRI. It’s tempting to tap your 401(k) for a big-ticket expense, such as buying a home. Trouble is, you may shortchange your future. According to a Fidelity survey, five years after taking a loan, 40% of 401(k) borrowers were saving less; 15% had stopped altogether. “There are no do-overs in retirement,” says Donna Nadler, a certified financial planner at Capital Management Group in New York.

Even worse is cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job; that triggers income taxes as well as a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½. A survey by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt found that 42% of workers who left their jobs in 2011 took their 401(k) in cash. Young workers were even more likely to do so. As you can see in the graphic below, siphoning off a chunk of your savings shaves off years of growth. “If you pocket the money, it means starting your retirement saving all over again,” says Nadler.

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Money

Resist the urge to borrow and roll your old plan into your new 401(k) or an IRA when you switch jobs. Or let inertia work in your favor. As long as your 401(k) is worth $5,000 or more, you can leave it behind at your old plan.

Fill in the gaps. Another problem with switching jobs is that you may have to wait to get into the 401(k). Waiting periods have shrunk: Today two-thirds of plans allow you to enroll in a 401(k) on day one, up from 57% five years ago, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. Still, the rest make you cool your heels for three months to a year. Meanwhile, 40% of plans require you to be on the job six months or more before you get matching contributions.

When you face a gap, keep saving, either in a taxable account or in a traditional or Roth IRA (if you qualify). Also, keep in mind that more than 60% of plans don’t allow you to keep the company match until you’ve been on the job for a specific number of years, typically three to five. If you’re close to vesting, sticking around can add thousands to your retirement savings.

Put a price on your benefits. A generous 401(k) match and friendly vesting can be a lucrative part of your compensation. The match added about $4,600 a year to Fidelity’s 401(k) millionaire accounts. All else being equal, seek out a generous retirement plan when you’re looking for a new job. In the absence of one, negotiate higher pay to make up for the missing match. If you face a long waiting period, ask for a signing bonus.

3) Keep Faith in Stocks

Research into millionaires by the Spectrem Group finds a greater willingness to take reasonable risks in stocks. True to form, Fidelity’s supersavers have 75% of their assets in stocks on average, vs. 66% for the typical 401(k) saver. That hefty equity stake has helped 401(k) millionaires hit seven figures, especially during the bull market that began in 2009.

What’s right for you will depend in part on your risk tolerance and what else you own outside your 401(k) plan. What’s more, you may not get the recent bull market turbo-boost that today’s 401(k) millionaires enjoyed. With rising interest rates expected to weigh on financial markets, analysts are projecting single-digit stock gains over the next decade. Still, those returns should beat what you’ll get from bonds and cash. And that commitment to stocks is crucial for making it to the million-dollar mark.

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 Savings

5 Signs You Will Become a Millionaire

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Martin Barraud—Getty Images

A million isn't what it used to be. But it's not bad, and here's how you get there.

A million bucks isn’t what it used to be. When your father, or maybe you, set that savings goal in 1980 it was like shooting for $3 million today. Still, millionaire status is nothing to sniff at—and new research suggests that a broad swath of millennials and Gen-Xers are on the right track.

The “emerging affluent” class, as defined in the latest Fidelity Millionaire Outlook study, has many of the same habits and traits as today’s millionaires and multimillionaires. You are in this class if you are 21 to 49 years of age with at least $100,000 of annual household income and $50,000 to $250,000 in investable assets. Fidelity found this group has five key points in common with today’s millionaires:

  • Lucrative career: The emerging affluent are largely pursuing careers in information technology, finance and accounting—much like many of today’s millionaires did years ago. They may be at a low level now, but they have time to climb the corporate ladder.
  • High income: The median household income of this emerging class is $125,000, more than double the median U.S. household income. That suggests they have more room to save now and are on track to earn and save even more.
  • Self-starters: Eight in 10 among the emerging affluent have built assets on their own, or added to those they inherited, which is also true of millionaires and multimillionaires.
  • Long-term focus: Three in four among the emerging affluent have a long-term approach to investments. Like the more established wealthy, this group stays with its investment regimen through all markets rather than try to time the market for short-term gains.
  • Appropriate aggressiveness: Similar to multimillionaires, the emerging affluent display a willingness to invest in riskier, high-growth assets for superior long-term returns.

Becoming a millionaire shouldn’t be difficult for millennials. All it takes is discipline and an early start. If you begin with $10,000 at age 25 and save $5,500 a year in an IRA that grows 6% a year, you will have $1 million at age 65. If you save in a 401(k) plan that matches half your contributions, you’ll amass nearly $1.5 million. That’s with no inheritance or other savings. Such sums may sound big to a young adult making little money. But if they save just $3,000 a year for seven years and then boost it to $7,500 a year, they will reach $1 million by age 65.

An emerging affluent who already has up to $250,000 and a big income can do this without breaking a sweat. They should be shooting far higher—to at least $3 million by 2050, just to keep pace with what $1 million buys today (assuming 3% annual inflation). But they will need $6 million in 2050 to have the purchasing power of $1 million back in 1980, when your father could rightly claim that a million dollars would make him rich.

Read next: What’s Your Best Path to $1 Million?

MONEY financial advisers

Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

businessman putting money into his suit jacket pocket
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

MONEY Savings

Retirement Savers, Don’t Count on Washington to Protect You

Regulations that would protect the interests of retirement savers are finally gaining traction in Washington. But don't pop the champagne corks just yet.

After years of talk about how to protect retirement savers, the White House has gotten behind a Labor Department proposal that would require financial advisers to put clients’ interests ahead of their own.

Consumer champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running for president, is doing wall-to-wall media on her view that the government should do more to regulate providers of 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case challenging high 401(k) fees.

But savers should not pop champagne corks yet. It takes forever and a day to legislate and regulate in Washington. Even if it ends up on a fast track, the Labor Department’s draft rule is expected to leave a loophole big enough to drive the brokerage industry through.

Labor Department officials have said it would allow retirement advisers to continue selling investments on commission, as long as they disclosed that to clients.

There are several issues involved in regulating retirement investment advice. A primary one is the quality of 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Employers, who have a fiduciary responsibility to provide good plans to their employees, often hand over program management to consultants, who can keep program costs to employers low and jack up investment fees that workers pay when they buy funds in their plans.

A second issue involves the quality of advice investors get on their individual retirement accounts. If the advice is from brokers, there is a possibility investors are being put into mutual funds that carry higher fees than are optimal for them or are in other ways being put into funds that are not right for them. Higher fees may compensate brokers who are paid by commission or may compensate fund companies that spend the extra cash in ways that benefit the brokerage firms that offer their funds. That can result in investment advice that is conflicted.

After years of lobbying by the brokerage industry, the Labor Department is leaning toward a rule that would allow conflicts, such as commissions and fund company payments to brokerages, as long as they were disclosed. So investors take note: you are eventually going to have to read all the small print, so you might as well start now.

Here’s how to protect your retirement savings:

Check your 401(k) plan. Numerous large employers have spent big bucks to settle class action lawsuits focused on mutual fund fees in retirement plans, and fees have fallen. Average annual management fees of 401(k) funds are below 0.5 percent at large companies and below 1 percent at small companies. If your company’s fund choices are out of line, talk to your human resources department. If your only choices are substandard funds and high fees, put only enough in your 401(k) to get the employer matching contributions, and then invest additional funds in a personal IRA or Roth IRA.

Choose inexpensive mutual funds. Investing in low cost index funds instead of costlier actively managed funds will put you ahead. A person earning $75,000 a year who starts saving at age 25 would spend $104,033 in fees over a lifetime if fees were capped at 0.25 percent of assets annually. At 1.3 percent, that same worker would spend $409,202, according to the Center for American Progress. That extra $305,169 could support roughly $1,000 a month for life in extra retirement income.

Separate advice from your investments. If you want help figuring out which funds to invest in, pay a fee-only financial adviser, do not depend on “free” advice from a commissioned broker. You can get inexpensive advice from big fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and T Rowe Price, or from so-called “robo advisers” like Wealthfront or Betterment.

Be especially careful about rollovers. When you leave a job, you typically have the right to keep your money invested in your 401(k), an excellent choice if you work for a company that provides good funds within the plan. Or you can roll it over into a so-called “Rollover IRA” at any brokerage or fund company. Choose a low-fee fund company or discount brokerage that will enable you to choose your own investments from a large pool of individual stocks and inexpensive funds, and buy only the advice you need.

MONEY IRAs

This Innovative Idea Could Improve Your Retirement

State governments are starting to step in to help workers save. Here's why that's a good thing.

A rare innovation in retirement saving is taking shape right now in, of all places, Illinois. In January the state became the first to okay an automatic IRA for workers at certain small businesses that don’t offer retirement plans. Those companies will be required to funnel 3% of their employees’ paychecks into a state-run Roth IRA, though workers can opt out.

It may seem surprising that Illinois is breaking ground in this area—after all, the state’s pension plans are among the worst funded in the nation. But Illinois is actually part of a broad movement. Some 30 states, including California and Connecticut, are developing similar savings programs. Says Sarah Mysiewicz Gill, senior legislative representative at AARP: “We’re reaching a critical mass of states.”

A Local Approach

Why are states taking on retirement planning? Half of private-sector employees don’t have an employer plan—a crucial tool for building a nest egg. In fact, just having access to a retirement plan through work makes a huge difference in whether you save. While 90% of those with a workplace plan have put aside money for retirement, only 20% of those without one have, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

So states will face a huge drain on their budgets as workers with no savings reach retirement and need services such as Medicaid and food assistance. “If Washington were moving faster on this, the states wouldn’t have to,” says Illinois state senator Daniel Biss, who sponsored the new IRA.

No question, Congress has long dodged addressing the looming retirement crisis; it has failed to fix Social Security or create a federal automatic IRA, which President Obama proposed again in his most recent State of the Union address. Obama did introduce the myRA last year, which will allow savers without employer plans to put away as much as $15,000 in Treasury securities. But without auto-enrollment, the myRA’s effectiveness will be limited.

The Illinois program may prove to be an appealing prototype. (First it will need approval by the Department of Labor and IRS.) Still, each state is crafting its own version. In Connecticut, the automatic IRA may be paid out as a lifetime annuity or in a lump sum. Indiana is looking at setting up a voluntary plan with a tax credit. “States are a great laboratory for experimentation,” says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, founder of Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives.

Reason to Hope

Of course, it’s far from certain that state savings plans will make much headway: at 3%, Illinois’s minimum contribution is far below the 10% to 15% of pay that retirement experts generally recommend. And a hodgepodge of state IRAs would be less efficient and more costly than a national plan.

That said, states can sometimes get it right. State-run 529 college savings plans have helped countless families with tuition bills. The Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the national plan that has meant coverage for millions. Perhaps the states’ efforts will push retirement savings higher up the federal government’s priority list. If Illinois can lead the way on retirement, anything’s possible.

 

MONEY Markets

What the Greek Crisis Means for Your Money

Global markets seem safe enough for now, but a so-called “Grexit” could have unpredictable effects.

As government officials in Greece and the rest of the European Union continue to haggle over the terms of its bailout agreement, you may be wondering: Does this have anything to do with me?

If you are investing in a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, the answer is likely “yes.” About a third of holdings in a fairly typical target-date mutual fund, like Vanguard Target Retirement 2035, are in foreign stocks. Funds like this, which hold a mix of stocks and bonds, are popular choices in 401(k)s.

Of those foreign stocks, only a small number are Greek companies. Vanguard Total International Stock (which the 2035 fund holds), for example, has only about 0.1% of assets in Greek companies. But about 20% of the foreign holdings in a typical target date fund are in euro-member countries, and if Greece leaves the euro, that could affect the whole continent.

What’s the worst that could happen? For one, investors and citizens in some troubled economies like Spain and Italy could start pulling their euros out of banks. Also, borrowing costs could go up, and that could hurt economic growth and weigh down stock prices. And if fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then bond yields and interest rates could keep staying at their unusually low levels.

There are some market watchers who see a potential upside to the conflict over Greece, however.

“If you believe the euro is an average of its currencies, it could actually rise if Greece leaves,” says BMO Private Bank chief investment officer Jack Ablin. A higher euro would make European stocks more valuable in dollar terms.

Additionally, he says, if Athens is thrown into pandemonium, then it’s actually less likely other countries will want to follow Greece out of the currency union.

The Greek situation will also have an impact on the bond market. If fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then many bond funds will do well, and yields and interest rates would stay at their unusually low levels.

Perhaps the most insidious thing right now, says Ablin, is uncertainty. Again, a Greek exit from the euro would be unprecedented, and that makes the effect unpredictable—and potentially very scary for the global market. So investors would be wise to keep in mind the possibility of “black swans,” a term coined by statistician Nassim Taleb to describe market events that seem unimaginable (like black swans used to be) until they actually occur.

MONEY IRAs

The Retirement Investing Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making

The investor rush to beat the April 15 deadline for IRA contributions often leads to bad decisions. Here's how to keep your investments growing.

It happens every year around this time: the rush by investors to make 11th-hour contributions to their IRAs before the April 15 tax deadline.

If you’ve recently managed to send in your contribution, congrats. But next time around, plan ahead—turns out, this beat-the-clock strategy comes at a cost, or a “procrastination penalty,” according to Vanguard.

Over 30 years, a last-minute IRA investor will wind up with $15,500 less than someone who invests at the start of the tax year, assuming identical contributions and returns, Vanguard calculations show. The reason for the procrastinator’s shortfall, of course, is the lost compounding of that money, which has less time to grow.

Granted, missing out on $15,500 over 30 years may not sound like an enormous penalty, though anyone who wants to send me a check for this amount is more than welcome to do so. But lost earnings aren’t the only cost of the IRA rush—last-minute contributions also lead to poor investment decisions, which may further erode your portfolio.

Many hurried IRA investors simply stash their new contributions in money-market funds—a move Vanguard calls a “parking lot” strategy. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of such contributions are still stashed in money funds a full 120 days later, where they have been earning zero returns. So what seems like a reasonable short-term decision often ends up being a bad long-term choice, says Vanguard retirement expert Maria Bruno.

Why are so many people fumbling their IRA strategy? All too often, investors focus mainly on their 401(k) plan, while IRAs are an after-thought. But fact is, most of your money will likely end up in an IRA, when you roll out of your 401(k). Overall, IRAs collectively hold some $7.3 trillion, the Investment Company Institute (ICI) found, fueled by 401(k) rollovers—that’s more than the money held in 401(k)s ($4.5 trillion) and other defined-contribution accounts ($2.2 trillion) combined.

Clearly, having a smart IRA plan can go a long way toward improving your retirement security. To get the most out of your IRA—and avoid mistakes—Bruno lays out five guidelines for investors:

  • Set up your contribution schedule. If you can’t stash away a large amount at the start of the year, establish a dollar-cost averaging program at your brokerage. That way, your money flows into your IRA throughout the year.
  • Invest the max. You can save as much as $5,500 in an IRA account in 2015. But for those 50 and older, you can make an additional tax-deferred “catch up” contribution of $1,000. A survey of IRA account holders by the ICI found that just 14% of investors take advantage of this savings opportunity. (You can find details on IRS contribution limits here.)
  • Select a go-to fund. Skip the money fund, and choose a target-date retirement fund or a balanced fund as the default choice for your IRA contributions. You can always change your investment choice later, but meantime you will get the benefits—and the potential growth—of a diversified portfolio.
  • Invest in a Roth IRA. Unlike traditional IRAs, which hold pre-tax dollars, Roths are designed to hold after tax money, but their investment gains and later payouts escape federal income taxes. With Roths, you also avoid RMDs (required minimum distributions) when you turn 70 ½, which gives you more flexibility. Vanguard says nine out of every 10 dollars contributed to IRAs by its younger customers under age 30 are flowing into Roths. Here are the IRS rules for 2015 Roth contributions.
  • Consider a Roth conversion. High-income earners who do not qualify for tax-deferred Roth contributions can still make post-tax contributions to an IRA and then convert this account to a Roth. The Obama Administration’s proposed 2016 federal budget would end these so-called backdoor Roth conversions, which have become very popular. Of course, it’s far from clear if that proposal will be enacted.

Once you have your IRA set up, resist tapping it until retirement. The longer you can let that money ride, the more growth you’re likely to get. Raiding your IRA for anything less than real emergency would be the worst mistake of all.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His latest book is “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: 25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

MONEY retirement planning

Why You Should Think Twice Before Choosing a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)

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GP Kidd—Getty Images

Sure, Roth plans let your savings grow tax free. But if you're nearing retirement, a traditional pre-tax account may be the best choice.

Even assuming a Republican Congress doesn’t go along with the tax hikes President Obama has proposed, the mere fact that talk of higher taxes is in the air could very well make Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s even more popular than they already are. But is that necessarily a good thing?

For years, the conventional wisdom held that you were better off saving for retirement in a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) rather than the traditional versions, provided you expect to face a higher tax rate in retirement than when you make the contribution. This makes sense because you would be paying tax at a lower rate upfront and avoiding a higher tax bill down the road when you withdraw your contribution and earnings tax-free.

Lately, however, it seems more people are challenging this view, and suggesting that you may still be better off in a Roth even if you end up in a lower tax rate when you withdraw the money in retirement. For example, T. Rowe Price released research last year showing not only that a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) could generate more income in retirement than a traditional account for people who drop to a lower tax rate; it also showed that even older savers—people in their 50s and early 60s—who fall into a lower marginal tax rate in retirement could come out ahead with a Roth.

But while this can be true—and there may also be other good reasons to fund a Roth—it’s hardly a given. So if you think you may end up dropping into a lower marginal tax rate in retirement, you should be aware of a few important caveats before doing a Roth, especially if you’re nearing retirement age.

The Drag of Taxes

For example, according to T. Rowe Price’s analysis a 55-year-old in the 33% tax bracket today who retires at age 65 would receive 9% more retirement income by making a contribution to a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA instead of a traditional account, even if he slipped into the 28% tax bracket upon retiring.

How is that possible? Let’s assume this 55-year-old has the choice of contributing $24,000 (the 2015 maximum for someone 50 or older) to a Roth 401(k) or a traditional 401(k). If he does the Roth and the $24,000 grows in a diversified mix of stocks and bonds at 7% a year, he would have $47,212 tax-free after 10 years.

If, on the other hand, he puts the $24,000 into a traditional 401(k) that returns 7% annually, he also would have $47,212 after 10 years. But assuming he drops to a 28% tax rate at retirement, he would owe $13,219 in taxes at withdrawal, leaving him with $33,993 after tax.

But the $24,000 he puts into the traditional 401(k) also gets him a tax deduction, which at a 33% pre-retirement tax rate effectively frees up $7,920 he can invest in a separate taxable account. If that account also earns 7% a year, after 10 years the 55-year-old would end up with $2,361 more in the traditional 401(k) plus the taxable account than he would with the Roth.

But wait. He must also pay taxes on gains in the taxable side account. Assuming he pays tax each year at a 33% rate before retiring, that would effectively reduce his after-tax return in the taxable account from 7% to roughly 4.7%, giving him a total after-tax balance in the traditional 401(k) plus side account of $694 less than the Roth.

In short, it’s the drag of taxes on the money invested in the taxable side account that allows the Roth to come out ahead. Or, to put it another way, the Roth wins out in this scenario because it effectively shelters more of your money from taxes than a traditional 401(k) plus the separate taxable account.

Check Your Time Horizon

But anyone, young or old, hoping to capitalize on this advantage by choosing a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA over a traditional account needs to be aware of two things.

First, as this example shows, the advantage the Roth gets from this tax-drag effect is relatively small. It can take many years for the Roth to build a meaningful edge in cases where someone slips into a lower marginal tax rate in retirement. In the example above, the Roth account is ahead by only 1.5% after 10 years. And if that 55-year-old were to drop from a 33% tax rate to a 25% rate in retirement, the Roth account would actually still be behind by about 1.5% after 10 years.

So for the 55-year-old to get that extra 9% of retirement income, the T. Rowe Price analysis assumes that the contribution made at age 55 not only stays invested until retirement at 65, but is withdrawn gradually over the course of 30 years (and earns a 6% annual return during that time). Which means at least some of the funds must remain invested in the Roth as long as 40 years.

The second caveat is that to take full advantage of the Roth’s tax-shelter benefits, you must contribute the maximum allowed or something close to it—specifically, enough so that you would be unable to match the aftertax Roth contribution by putting the pretax equivalent into a traditional account.

For example, had the 55-year-old in the scenario above been investing, say, $10,000 in the Roth instead of the maximum $24,000, he could have simply invested the entire pretax equivalent of his Roth contribution ($14,925 in the 33% tax bracket) in the traditional account instead of splitting his money between the traditional account and the separate taxable account. Doing so would eliminate the tax drag of the taxable account as well as the Roth’s 9% income advantage. Indeed the Roth account would provide 7% less after-tax income over 30 years than the traditional 401(k).

The upshot: Unless you’re willing to make the maximum contribution to a Roth IRA or 401(k) or an amount approaching that limit, dropping into a lower tax bracket in retirement could do away with much, if not all, of the expected advantage of going with a Roth. (The Roth might still come out ahead over a very long time since you can avoid required minimum distributions).

Diversify, Tax-wise

There are plenty of compelling reasons to choose a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), even if you’re unsure what tax rate you’ll face in retirement. For example, I’ve long been an advocate of “tax diversification.” By having money in both Roth and traditional accounts you can diversify your tax exposure, so not every cent of your retirement savings is taxed at whatever tax rate some future Congress sets on ordinary income.

And since (under current law, at least) there are no required distributions from a Roth IRA starting after age 70 ½, money in a Roth IRA can compound tax-free the rest of your life, after which you can pass it on as a tax-free legacy to your heirs. Roth IRA distributions also won’t trigger taxes on your Social Security benefits, as can sometimes happen with withdrawals from a regular IRA or 401(k).

Bottom line: Before doing a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), take the time run a few scenarios on a calculator like those in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox using different pre- and post-retirement tax rates. Such an exercise is even more important if you think you might face a lower marginal tax rate in retirement, and absolutely crucial if you’re nearing retirement age.

But above all, don’t assume that just because Roth withdrawals can be tax-free that Roths are automatically the better deal.

[Note: This version has been revised to make it clear that the scenario with the hypothetical 55-year-old compares a Roth 401(k) vs. a traditional 401(k), not a traditional IRA.]

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 retirement planning

Why Women Are Less Prepared Than Men for Retirement

Women outpace men when it comes to saving, but they need to be more aggressive in their investing.

Part of me hates investment advice specifically geared towards women. I’ve looked at enough studies on sex differences—and the studies of the studies on sex differences—to know that making generalizations about human behavior based on sex chromosomes is bad science and that much of what we attribute to hardwired differences is probably culturally determined by the reinforcement of stereotype.

So I’m going to stick to the numbers to try and figure out if, as is usually portrayed, women are actually less prepared for retirement—and why. One helpful metric is the data collected from IRA plan administrators across the country by the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI.) The study found that although men and women contribute almost the same to their IRAs on average—$3,995 for women and $4,023 for men in 2012—men wind up with much larger nest eggs over time. The average IRA balance for men in 2012, the latest year for which data is available, was $136,718 for men and only $75,140 for women.

And when it comes to 401(k)s, women are even more diligent savers than men, despite earning lower incomes on average. Data from Vanguard’s 2014 How America Saves study, a report on the 401(k) plans it administers, shows that women are more likely to enroll when sign up is voluntary, and at all salary levels they tend to contribute a higher percentage of their income to their plans. But among women earning higher salaries, their account balances lag those of their male counterparts.

It seems women are often falling short when it comes to the way they invest. At a recent conference on women and wealth, Sue Thompson, a managing director at Black Rock, cited results from their 2013 Global Investor Pulse survey that showed that only 26% of female respondents felt comfortable investing in the stock market compared to 44% of male respondents. Women are less likely to take on risk to increase returns, Thompson suggested. Considering women’s increased longevity, this caution can leave them unprepared for retirement.

Women historically have tended to outlive men by several years, and life expectancies are increasing. A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3 while a woman can expect to live until 86.6, according to the Social Security Administration. Better-educated people typically live longer than the averages. For upper-middle-class couples age 65 today, there’s a 43% chance that one or both will survive to at least age 95, according to the Society of Actuaries. And that surviving spouse is usually the woman.

To build the portfolio necessary to last through two or three decades of retirement, women should be putting more into stocks, not less, since equities offer the best shot at delivering inflation-beating growth. The goal is to learn to balance the risks and rewards of equities—and that’s something female professional money managers seem to excel at. Some surveys have shown that hedge fund managers who are women outperform their male counterparts because they don’t take on excessive risk. They also tend to trade less often; frequent trading has been shown to drag down performance, in part because of higher costs.

Given that the biggest risk facing women retirees is outliving their savings, they need to grow their investments as much as possible in the first few decades of savings. If it makes women uncomfortable to allocate the vast majority, if not all, of their portfolio to equities in those critical early years, they should remind themselves that even more so than men they have the benefit of a longer time horizon in which to ride out market ups and downs. And we should take inspiration from the female professional money managers in how to take calculated risks in order to reap the full benefits of higher returns.

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.

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