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 401(k)s

This New Retirement Income Solution May Be Headed for Your 401(k)

Target-date mutual funds in 401(k)s can now add an annuity feature, which will provide lifetime income in retirement.

The stunningly popular target-date mutual fund is getting a facelift that promises to cement it as the premier one-stop retirement plan. By adding an automatic lifetime income component, these funds may now take you from cradle to grave.

Last month the federal government blessed new guidelines, on the heels of initial guidance last summer, which together allow savers to seamlessly convert 401(k) assets into guaranteed lifetime income. Specifically, the IRS and the Treasury Department will allow target-date mutual funds in 401(k) plans to invest in immediate or deferred fixed annuities. Plan sponsors can choose to make these target-date funds the default option, meaning workers would have to opt out if they preferred other investments.

Target-date funds are widely considered one of the most innovative investment products of the past 20 years. They automatically shift to a more conservative asset allocation as you age, starting with around 90% stocks when you are young and moving to around 50% stocks at age 65. By simplifying diversification and asset allocation, target-date funds have become 401(k) stalwarts.

They have broad appeal and are a big factor in the rising participation rate of workers, and of younger workers in particular. Nearly half of all 401(k) contributions go into target-date funds, a figure that will hit 63% by 2018, Cerulli Associates projects. By then, Vanguard estimates that 58% of its plan participants and 80% of new plan entrants will be entirely in target-date funds. In all, these funds hold about $1 trillion.

The annuity feature stands to make them even more popular by closing an important loop in the retirement equation. Now, at age 65 or so, a worker may retire with a portion of their 401(k) automatically positioned to kick off monthly income with no threat of running out of money. In simple terms, a target-date fund that has moved from stocks to bonds as you near retirement may now move from bonds to fixed annuities at retirement, easing concerns about outliving your money and being able to meet fixed expenses.

Policymakers have been working towards this kind of solution for the past several years, but have hit a variety of stumbling blocks, including tax and eligibility issues and others having to do with a plan sponsor’s liability for any guarantees or promises it makes through its 401(k) investment options. There are still implementation problems to be worked out, so few plans are likely to add annuities right away. But the new federal guidelines clarify the rules for employers and pave the way for broader acceptance of both immediate and deferred fixed annuities in 401(k) plans. And a guaranteed lifetime income stream is something that workers are clearly looking for in retirement.

More on 401(k)s from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

Why is a 401(k) such a good deal?

How should I invest in my 401(k)?

What if I need my 401(k) money before I retire?

Read next: Flunking Retirement Readiness, and What to Do About It

MONEY retirement planning

Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

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marvinh—Getty Images/Vetta

Workers are confused by the unknowns of retirement planning. No wonder so few are trying to do it.

Planning for retirement is the most difficult part of managing your money—and it’s getting tougher, new research shows. The findings come even as rising markets have buoyed retirement savings accounts, and vast resources have been poured into things like financial education and simplified investment choices meant to ease the planning process.

Some 64% of households at least five years from retirement are having difficulty with retirement planning, according to a study from Hearts and Wallets, a financial research firm. That’s up from 54% of households two years ago and 50% in 2010. Americans rate retirement planning as the most difficult of 24 financial tasks presented in the study.

How can this be? Jobs and wages have been slowly improving. Stocks have doubled from their lows, even after the recent market tumble. The housing market is rebounding. Online tools and instruction through 401(k) plans have greatly improved. We have one-decision target-date mutual funds that make asset allocation a breeze. Yet retirement planning is perceived as more difficult.

The explanation lies at least partly in an increasingly evident quandary: few of us know exactly when we will retire and none of us know when we will die. But retirement planning is built around choosing some kind of reasonable estimate for those two variables. But that’s something few people are prepared to do. As the study found, 61% of households between the ages of 21 to 64 say they can’t answer the following basic retirement question: When will I stop full-time work?

Even the more straightforward retirement planning issues are challenging for many workers. Among the top sources of difficulty: estimating required minimum distributions from retirement accounts (57%), deciding where to keep their money (54%), and getting started saving (51%).

Those near or already in retirement have considerably less financial angst, the study found. Their most difficult task, cited by 33%, is estimating appropriate levels of spending, followed by choosing the right health insurance (31%) and a sustainable drawdown rate on their savings accounts (28%).

For younger generations, planning a precise retirement date has become far more difficult, in part because of the Great Recession. Undersaved Baby Boomers have been forced to work longer, and that has contributed to stalled careers among younger generations. The final date is now a moving target that depends on one’s health, the markets, how much you can save, and whether you will be downsized out of a job. Americans have moved a long way from the traditional goal of retirement at age 65, and the uncertainty can be crippling.

Nowhere does the study mention the difficulty of estimating how long we will live. Maybe the subject is simply one we don’t like to think about, but the fact is, many Americans are living longer and are at greater risk of running out of money in retirement. This is another critical input that individuals have trouble accounting for.

In the days of traditional pensions, many Americans could rely on professional money managers to grapple with these problems. Left on their own, without a reliable source of lifetime income (other than Social Security), workers don’t know where to start. The best response is to save as much as you can, work as long you can—and remember that retirees tend to be happy, however much they have saved.

Related:

How should I start saving for retirement?

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Can I afford to retire?

Read next: 3 Little Mistakes That Can Sink Your Retirement

MONEY 401(k)s

5 Ways to Get Help With Your 401(k)

Most 401(k) plans now offer financial advice, often for free. Workers who take advantage of these programs tend to earn higher returns.

UPDATED: OCT. 7

When Chris Costello wanted to test his new online 401(k) advice service called blooom, he asked his sister if she would let him peek under the hood of her account.

What Costello found was typical of workers who do not pay much attention to their accounts—it was allocated badly, leaving her behind on her retirement goals.

In his sister’s case, she had put her funds in a money market account when the recession hit in 2008 and never moved them back into the market.

“It’s been like four or five years of recovery, and she had made like $10,” says Costello, who is co-founder and chief executive of blooom.

Overall, workers have more than $4.3 trillion invested in 401(k) plans, according to the Investment Company Institute. Yet many of the 52 million workers who participate in 401(k) are not good at making their own investment choices, experts say.

Studies show that workers who get investment advice from any source do better than those who receive no advice.

The difference can be more than 3% a year on returns or up to 80% over 25 years, according to a recent study by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt and 401(k) advice service Financial Engines.

“Left to their own devices, people either do nothing at all or pick poorly,” says Christopher Jones, chief investment officer at Financial Engines, the largest provider in the advice sector as ranked by assets under management.

So where can employees turn for guidance?

1. Start with your human resources department

You might already have access to advice, says Grant Easterbrook, an analyst who tracks online financial services for New York-based consulting firm Corporate Insight. He says even his own colleagues do not know they have access to free financial advice as an add-on benefit.

If you work at a big company, you might be one of the 600 clients of Financial Engines. Their free services include allocation advice and performance data. Other companies may employ consultants to give advice during open-enrollment periods or give access to calculators and other advice through the website of the 401(k) provider.

Employees at smaller companies might have to venture further to get help. “Three out of four participants don’t have access to an employer-based advisory tool,” says John Eaton, general manager of 401K GPS. “But there are a lot of DIY solutions out there.”

2. Get free advice on the Web

The Web offers a lot more these days than standard retirement calculators. You can obtain detailed advice on allocating funds in your specific retirement plan from several providers.

At FutureAdvisor and Kivalia, to name two, all you have to do is type in the name of your company and the system will generate a sample portfolio. You will then have to take that allocation advice and implement it on your own.

3. Pick managed funds or target-date funds

If you do not want to get too involved in the process—even to just pick a simple selection of index funds—your company will typically offer some kind of managed fund or target-date fund, a diversified fund linked to a future retirement date that gradually gets more conservative as you age, in their mix of choices.

When you allocate your money into these types of funds, you are buying the management expertise that comes with them, timed for a retirement date in the future. Sometimes that comes with stiff fees, so be sure to check the fine print, says Easterbrook.

“Absent engagement, it’s a reasonable approach to take,” adds Shane Bartling, a senior retirement consultant for benefit provider Towers Watson & Co.

4. Pay to have somebody manage it for you

Financial Engines has 800,000 subscribers who pay a percentage of their assets under management to monitor their 401(k) accounts and make changes accordingly. Others are GuidedChoice, which offers its services through providers such as ADP, Schwab, and Morningstar, which reaches 99,000 different plans.

Start-ups are emerging as well, either charging a flat fee such as $10 a month or a fee based on how much money you have.

401K GPS, which launched in 2011, operates primarily through investment advisers and small employers. There is also blooom, MyPlanIQ, Co-Piloted and Smart401k.

5. Do not opt out of auto-enrollment

The majority of people will still do nothing, but that may be a savvy option. Financial Engine’s Jones says some companies are making workers re-enroll in 401(k) plans and defaulting them into managed accounts to get them to diversify.

“When we do that, about 60% of population will stay in these programs,” says Jones. About 15% of active investors will opt out because they are already getting advice.

UPDATE: In the auto-enrollment section, the default allocation was corrected.

MONEY 401(k)s

Why This Popular Retirement Investment May Leave You Poorer

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slobo—Getty Images

Target-date funds are supposed to be simple all-in-one investments, but there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Considering my indecision about how to invest my retirement portfolio (see “Do I Really Need Foreign Stocks in My 401(k)?”) you would think there’s an easy solution staring me in the face: target-date funds, which shift their asset mix from riskier to more conservative investments on a fixed schedule based on a specific retirement date.

These funds often come with attractive, trademarked names like “SmartRetirement” and are marketed as “all-in-one” solutions. But while they certainly make intuitive sense, they are not remotely as simple as they sound.

First introduced about two decades ago, the growth of target-date funds was spurred by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which blessed them as the default investment option for employees being automatically enrolled by defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. And indeed, investing in a target-date fund is certainly better than nothing. But the financial crisis of 2008 raised the first important question about target-date funds when some of them with a 2010 target turned out to be overexposed to equities and lost up to 40% of their value: Are these funds supposed to merely take you up to retirement, or do they take you through it for the next 20 to 30 years?

The answer greatly determines a fund’s “glide path,” or schedule for those allocation shifts. The funds that take you “to” retirement tend to be more conservative, while the “through” funds hold more in stocks well into retirement. Still, even target-date funds bearing the same date and following the same “to” or “through” strategy may have a very different asset allocations. For a solution that’s supposed to be easy, that’s an awful lot of fine print for the average investor to read, much less understand.

Then there is the question of timing for those shifts in asset allocation. Some target-date funds opt for a slow and gradual reduction of stocks (and increase in bonds), which can reduce risk but also reduce returns, since you receive less growth from equities. Others may sharply reduce the stock allocation just a few years before the target date—the longer run in equities gives investors a shot at better returns, but it’s also riskier. Which is right for you depends on how much risk you can tolerate and whether you’d be willing to postpone retirement based on market conditions, as many were forced to do after 2008.

In short, no one particular portfolio is going to meet everyone’s needs, so there’s a lot more to consider about target-date funds than first meets the eye. If I were to go for a target-date fund, I would probably pick one that doesn’t follow a set glide path but is instead “tactically managed” by a portfolio manager in the same manner as a traditional mutual fund. A recent Morningstar report found that “contrary to the academic and industry research that suggests it’s difficult to consistently execute tactical management well, target-date series with that flexibility have generally outperformed those not making market-timing calls.”

Maybe it’s the control freak in me, but I prefer selecting my own assortment of funds instead of using a target-date option where the choices are made for you. Granted, managing my own retirement portfolio was a lot simpler when I was young and had a seemingly limitless appetite for risk. But even as I get older and diversification becomes more important, I still want to be in the driver’s seat. Anyone can pick a target, but there is no one, single, easy way to get there.

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

Related links:

 

MONEY retirement planning

Answers to 5 of Twitter’s Most-Asked Questions About Retirement

Following a recent Twitter chat, a retirement expert expands on answers to queries about Roth IRAs, Social Security and more.

The Twitterverse has questions about retirement. What’s the best way for young people to get started saving? Are target-date funds good or bad? Should we expand Social Security to help low-wage workers?

Those are just a few of the great questions I fielded during a retirement Tweet-up convened this week by my colleagues at Reuters. Since my column allows for responses beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit, today I’m expanding on answers to five questions I found especially interesting. You can view the entire chat —which included advice from personal finance gurus from Reuters and Charles Schwab—on Twitter at #ReutersRetire.

Q: What’s the best way for parents to help young adult children save for the long term? How about Roth IRAs?

Roth IRAs are no-brainers for young people. With a traditional IRA, you pay taxes at the end of the line, when you withdraw the money. With a Roth, you invest with after-tax money, and withdrawals (principal and returns) are tax-free in most situations. That’s especially beneficial for young retirement investors, since most people move into higher income-tax brackets as they get older and make more money.

Q: How would you expand Social Security? Any current proposal appealing?

This question was posed during Twitter chatter about the difficulty low-income workers face building retirement saving, and ways to make our retirement system more equitable. Expanding Social Security may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which argues that rising longevity should dictate reductions in future benefits, not increases. But this is a case where the conventional wisdom is wrong.

An expanded Social Security system is the most logical response to our looming retirement security crisis because of its risk pooling and progressive approach to income distribution. Social Security replaces the highest percentage of pre-retirement income for workers at the low end of the wealth scale.

Several ideas are kicking around Congress. Most would raise revenue by gradually phasing out the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax ($117,000 in 2014) and raising payroll tax rates over a 20-year period. Some advocates also would like to see a surtax on annual incomes over $1 million. On the benefits side, advocates want to increase benefits across the board by 10%, recognize the value of family caregivers by awarding work credits toward Social Security benefits and adopt a more generous annual cost-of-living adjustment formula.

Q: With the myriad questions about retirement, can “live” advisers really be replaced by automated advice and data-driven programs?

Online software-driven services—so-called robo-adviser services – can’t fully replace human advice. But they address a key problem: how to deploy retirement guidance to mass audiences at a low cost. Services like Wealthfront and Betterment interact with clients online using algorithms, with low fee structures—typically 0.25% of assets under management or less.

Another variation on this theme: services that deliver advice through a combination of software and human advice, such as LearnVest. One of the most interesting tech-enabled experiments is Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services, which provides access to a managed portfolio of Vanguard index funds and exchange-traded funds, along with portfolio management services from a human adviser.

Vanguard charges just 0.3% of assets under management for the service. The service is in test mode with a small group of clients, and only available to clients with $100,000 to invest. The minimum will be reduced when the service expands, and it should be rolled out more broadly over the next 12 to 18 months, a spokeswoman says. Given Vanguard’s huge scale, it’s a venture worth watching.

Q: What’s the final verdict on target-date funds—good or evil?

We don’t have a final verdict yet, but target-date funds (TDFs) are doing more good than evil—though they generate plenty of controversy, confusion and misunderstanding. The general idea is to reduce the risk you’re taking as retirement approaches by cutting your exposure to stocks in favor of fixed-income investments—the “glide path.” But some TDFs glide “to” your retirement date, while others glide “through it.” Experts debate which is better, but you should at least know which type of fund you own.

Many retirement investors misuse TDFs by mixing them with other funds, a recent survey found. These funds are designed as one-stop investment solutions that automatically keep your account balanced; doing otherwise will hurt your returns.

Bottom line? TDFs do more good than harm by automatically keeping millions of retirement portfolios balanced with reasonably good equity-to-fixed-income allocations. And they are the fastest-growing product in the market: Some $618 billion was invested in TDFs at the end of 2013, according to the Investment Company Institute, up from $160 billion in 2008.

Q: Anyone know what the highest Social Security income is for a retiree today versus what’s expected 30 years from now?

This year’s maximum monthly benefit at full retirement age (66) is $2,642. The Social Security Administration doesn’t have projections for future benefit levels, but the answer certainly will depend on how Congress decides to deal with the program’s long-term projected shortfalls. Solutions could include tax increases (discussed above) or higher retirement ages. Boosting the retirement age would mean a lower benefit at age 66.

MONEY target date funds

Target-Date Funds Try Timing the Market

Managers of target-date retirement funds seek to boost returns with tactical moves. Will their bets blow up?

Mutual fund companies are trying to juice returns of target-date funds by giving their managers more leeway to make tactical bets on stock and bond markets, even though this could increase the volatility and risk of the widely held retirement funds.

It’s an important shift for the $651 billion sector known for its set-it-and-forget-it approach to investing. Target-date funds typically adjust their mix of holdings to become more conservative over time, according to fixed schedules known as “glide paths.”

The funds take their names from the year in which participating investors plan to retire, and they are often used as a default investment choice by employees who are automatically enrolled in their company 401(k) plans. Their assets have grown exponentially.

The funds’ goal is to reduce the risk investors take when they keep too much of their money in more volatile investments as they approach retirement, or when they follow their worst buy-high, sell-low instincts and trade too often in retirement accounts.

So a move by firms like BlackRock Inc., Fidelity Investments and others to let fund managers add their own judgment to pre-set glide paths is significant. The risk is that their bets could blow up and work against the long-term strategy—hurting workers who think their retirement accounts are locked into safe and automatic plans.

Fund sponsors say they aren’t putting core strategies in danger—many only allow a shift in the asset allocation of 5% in one direction or another—and say they actually can reduce risk by freeing managers to make obvious calls.

“Having a little leeway to adjust gives you more tools,” said Daniel Oldroyd, portfolio manager for JPMorgan Chase & Co’s SmartRetirement funds, which have had tactical management since they were introduced in 2006.

GROWING TACTICAL APPROACH

BlackRock last month introduced new target-date options, called Lifepath Dynamic, that allow managers to tinker with the glide path-led portfolios every six months based on market conditions.

Last summer, market leader Fidelity gave managers of its Pyramis Lifecycle strategies—used in the largest 401(k) plans—a similar ability to tweak the mix of assets they hold.

Now it is mulling making the same move in its more broadly held Fidelity target-fund series, said Bruce Herring, chief investment officer of Fidelity’s Global Asset Allocation division.

Legg Mason Inc says it will start selling target-date portfolios for 401(k) accounts within a few months whose allocations can be shifted by roughly a percentage point in a typical month.

EARLY BETS PAYING OFF

So far, some of the early tactical target-date plays have paid off. Those funds that gave their managers latitude on average beat 61% of their peers over five years, according to a recent study by Morningstar analyst Janet Yang. Over the same five years, funds that held their managers to strict glide paths underperformed.

But the newness of the funds means they have not been tested fully by a market downturn.

“So far it’s worked, but we don’t have a full market cycle,” Yang cautioned.

The idea of putting human judgment into target-date funds raises issues similar to the long-running debate over whether active fund managers can consistently outperform passive index products, said Brooks Herman, head of research at BrightScope, based in San Diego, which tracks retirement assets.

“It’s great if you get it right, it stings when you don’t. And, it’s really hard to get it right year after year after year,” he said.

MONEY 401(k)s

Get the Most From Your 401(k) at Any Age

To get the most out of your retirement savings, put the right amount in and take the right steps at all stages of life. Here's some advice to follow, whether you're just starting out or further down your career path.

 

Millennials

Millennials Start small, then auto-escalate. Less than half of workers ages 22 to 32 are saving for retirement, despite how painless it can be. Socking away 3% of a $50,000 salary ($1,500 before taxes) costs you less than $22 a week in take-home pay. Then take baby steps by auto- escalating your savings by one percentage point a year. In plans with auto-enroll and a 1% auto-escalate feature, nine in 10 participants are able to safely generate 60% of their age-64 income, adjusted for inflation, according to EBRI.

Take the easy way out. More than two in five millennials in retirement plans aren’t familiar with their investment options. No problem: Just go with a target-date fund, which automatically adjusts your portfolio to be less risky as you age. The worst-performing target-date investors at Vanguard earned 11.8% annually over the past five years, far outpacing the worst DIYers, who gained just 2.1%.

Roll over as you go. Twentysomethings typically spend 1.3 years at each job. And Fidelity says nearly half cash out 401(k)s when leaving. That triggers income taxes and a 10% penalty, depleting the amount that can compound. The box shows what that really costs you.

Gen Xers

Gen Xers Keep the bottom line top of mind. A funny thing about investing: The more you save and the bigger your balance, the more fees you have to pay in dollar terms. So now that your account has some serious money, shifting to lower-cost options such as an index fund is an easy way to save big (see chart). If you have $100,000 saved by 40 and underlying returns average 7%, the savings by 65 of switching from a 1.2%-fee fund to 0.3% is $102,000—nearly a whole second nest egg.

Shoot for 17%. How much you need to save depends on how much you already have. But 17% is a good mental anchor. That’s the number Wade Pfau of the American College of Financial Services came up with for folks starting from scratch at 35, with a 60% stock/40% bond portfolio, to safely fund a typical retirement goal. You might be okay saving less if the markets go your way, but Pfau’s number is what it takes to get there even with poor returns. That’s far more than the average 401(k) contribution of around 6% to 7%. But take a deep breath. That number includes the contributions from your employer.

Resist the urge to borrow. About 22% of participants between 35 and 54 in plans run by ­Vanguard have borrowed from their retirement accounts. Compared with other forms of debt, a 401(k) loan isn’t the worst. But the amount that you borrow is money that’s not compounding tax-deferred.

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers Save in bursts. Neither saving nor spending runs along a smooth path. For example, you may have to pare back savings while paying the kids’ college bills. The good news is that “after 50 is when people should be able to save the most, as their kids are moving out, they’ve paid off the mortgage, and they should be in the highest earnings years of their lives,” says economist Wade Pfau. Starting at 50, you can also make extra 401(k) contributions of up to $5,500, on top of the normal $17,500.

Prep for the spend-down phase. Once you retire, you’ll have to spend out of your nest egg regardless of market conditions. Even if stocks do well on average, a bad run early on can deplete your portfolio. So “start taking a couple percent of equities off the table every year in the five or 10 years leading up to retirement,” says financial adviser Michael Kitces.

Readjust your target. According to polls, Americans expect to retire around 66. But the actual age of retirement is 62. Things happen: You may run into health issues or be forced into early retirement. Now many 401(k) savers use target-date funds. As you gain more visibility on your own retirement date, adjust the ­target-date fund you use. As the chart shows, it can make a big difference. Notes: Cash-out growth assumes a 5% annual return. Fee calculations are based on total costs, including forgone gains. sources: Morningstar, T. Rowe Price, SEC, MONEY research

MONEY Ask the Expert

Should I Be More Hands On With My 401(k)?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am in my mid-30s and I am hands off with my 401(k). Should I be more active with the funds my 401(k) is plugged into? – William E. Collier

A: When it comes to 401(k) plans, inertia tends to rule—many people never revisit their initial investment choices after enrolling. It’s important to keep tabs on your plan and to make a few tweaks occasionally. But whether you should be a lot more active depends on how comfortable you are managing your own investments.

Most 401(k)s offer low-cost core stock and bond funds, including index options. If you are familiar with the basic rules of asset allocation, you can easily build a diversified, inexpensive portfolio on your own. But recent research makes a good case that getting some professional help with your portfolio can boost returns.

Pros may not outsmart the market, but they can often save your from your own worst instincts—taking too much or too little risk, or changing your investments too frequently. As a recent study by consultants AonHewitt and advice provider Financial Engines found, investors who followed their plan’s financial guidance earned median annual returns that were 3.3 percentage points higher than do-it-yourselfers, net of fees. The study analyzed the returns between 2006 and 2012 for 723,000 plan participants, including investors in target-date funds and managed accounts, those using the plan’s online tools, as well as do-it-yourselfers.

A three percentage point gap is substantial. A do-it-yourselfer who invested $10,000 at age 45 would have $32,800 by age 65; by contrast, the average 401(k) saver using professional advice would have $58,700 at age 65, or 79% more, the study found.

Another analysis by investment firm Vanguard found a smaller difference in returns for those who got help vs. those who didn’t. Target-date investors earned median annual returns of 15.3% vs. 14% for those managing on their own. The do-it-youselfers also had a wide range of outcomes, with the 25% earning median annual returns of less than 9%.

These days more plans are providing guidance in the form of online tools and target date funds: 72% of 401(k) plans offer target-date funds, up from 57% in 2006, according to the Investment Company Institute. The Plan Sponsor Council of America found that 41.4% offered some kind of investment advice in 2013, up from 35.2% the previous year.

Taking advantage of this help can be a smart move. But if you opt for a target-date fund, be sure that you use it correctly—as your only investment. Adding other funds will throw off what’s designed to be an ideal, all-in-one asset mix. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of target-date fund users put only some of their money in one, while spreading the rest among other investments. That move may lower your median annual returns by 2.62 percentage points, the study found, compared with investors who put all their money in a single target-date fund.

If you decide to go it alone, make sure to build your own ideal portfolio mix—try Bankrate’s asset allocation tool. To minimize risk, rebalance once a year to prevent any one allocation from getting too far out of whack. As you near retirement, remember to ratchet down the risk level in your portfolio by shifting to more conservative investments, such as bonds and cash.

Make these few moves, and you won’t get left behind by being hands on.

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