How to minimize the impact of 401(k) fees

  • Retirement plan fees vary substantially across firms.
  • Annual fees appear trivial but small differences in the annual fee have a substantial impact on retirement wealth.
  • A median-wage worker at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan can pay more than $100,000 in retirement plan fees over her lifetime.
  • Workers can reduce lifetime retirement fees by moving to a job at firm with a low-fee plan, moving retirement funds to a low-cost IRA when changing jobs, greater use of IRAs, and greater use of investments outside retirement plans.

Background on impact of high retirement plan fees:  A report by the Center for American Progressrevealed that 401(k) fees are a substantial expense and drain on retirement income for many workers.  On average, annual 401(k) fees are 1.0 percent of assets.   

There is substantial dispersion in the annual fee percentage across firms.   A 2011 survey cited in the report found the average annual 401(k) fee for firms with fewer than 100 participants was 1.32%.   The report found that a well-managed retirement account could have a fee as low as 0.25%. 

The report calculates lifetime 401(k) fees for workers at three different annual fee rates – 0.25%, 1.0%, and 1.3%.   The scenarios assumed the worker contributes 5% of salary and receives a 5% employer match. The findings indicate that relatively small annual differences in fees as a percent of asset leads to large differences in lifetime fees paid by workers to the sponsor of their retirement plan.

  • Lifetime 401(k) fees for a median-wage worker starting her career are $42,000 at a 0.25% annual fee, 138,000 at a 1.0% annual fee, and $166,000 for a worker at 1.30% annual fee.  

The report also contained lifetime fee calculations for a higher wage worker.  Results were proportionate to income.

Higher retirement fees were associated with a higher likelihood of ending up with insufficient retirement income.

  • An increase in retirement plan fees from 0.5% of assets to 1.0% of assets will reduce the likelihood a worker will have sufficient retirement income from 69% to 57%.

The reported annual fee as a percent of retirement plan assets appears to be small, almost trivial.   However, the fee is applied each year.    The annual fee becomes large for older workers with larger amounts accumulated in the account.   

High retirement fees are an especially important issue when interest rates are low.  When the fee percentage is larger than the bond interest rate, the de-facto interest rate is negative. This is currently the case with a two-year Treasury rate stands at 0.16% below the level of even a low-cost retirement fund.

The Center for American Progress argues that a key solution to problems created by high retirement plan fees is better information about the fees.  Workers are not explicitly billed for retirement fees.  The retirement plan fee is an indirect charge deducted from investment returns.   Workers would be much more cognizant of retirement fees if they were directly charged the service.

Investment managers charging high fees claim their fees are justified because their fund realizes higher returns.  The finance literature indicates that passive funds with low returns tend to outperform active funds with higher fees.  Moreover, Warren Buffet, arguably the best active stock picker of all time, argues sticking with the S&P 500 will lead to better returns than active management.

Workers would be better served if they were automatically placed in low-cost funds unless they opted out.  The current default retirement plan is the plan chosen by the worker’s employer.   However, workers at firms that choose a high-cost retirement plan with inadequate options can and should take several steps to reduce fees and work towards a secure retirement.

Mitigation of the adverse financial impact on high retirement fees:

A worker who is aware that a retirement plan at her current or prospective job imposes high fees can take several steps to reduce fees.   These steps include, moving to a job with a better retirement plan, rolling over funds from the high-cost plan to a low-cost IRA when changing jobs, greater use of individual retirement accounts, and increased savings outside of retirement plans.

Moving to a firm with a better retirement plan:  A person with multiple job offers should consider the quality of the retirement plan when weighing different offers.  Factors determining the quality of a firm’s retirement plan include – whether the firm matches employer contributions, the level of the match, whether the firm offers a Roth 401(k) option and as shown above the level of fees.

Change jobs and rolling over retirement funds:  The existence of high retirement fees should motivate a person with assets in a retirement plan to look for a new gig.  Preferably the new job would have a retirement plan with a lower-cost plan; however, even if it does not the worker can take her funds out of the high-cost plan and place them in a low-cost IRA.   

Consider, a 45-year-old worker with $300,000 in a retirement plan charging a 1.3 percent annual fee.   The person is paying $3,900 in retirement fees in her current year.  She could quit her job and move the retirement funds to a low-cost IRA with a fee at perhaps 0.5 percent.   The current-year annual fee would be $1,500.

The annual leakage from high fees grows over time in tandem with the growth of assets.  One of the worse mistakes a person can make preparing for retirement is to leave assets in a high-cost plan once you move to a new position or retiring.

Investment related fees at reputable firms like Vanguard, Fidelity and Schwab have fallen in recent years and with a little research you can roll funds into a low-cost IRA when you leave your current position.    The impact on your retirement wealth is considerable and I see no advantages in keeping funds with a high-cost retirement funds after you move to a new position.

Use of IRAs to replace or complement firm retirement plan savings: The person who accepts a job at a firm with a high-fee retirement plan must decide whether to contribute to the retirement plan, contribute to an individual retirement plan instead of the IRA or contribute to both the firm retirement plan and an IRA.

There are some limitations with IRAs.  Contribution limits are lower for IRAs than for 401(k) plans.  The contribution limit for IRAs in 2020 is $6,000 for people under 50 and $7,000 for people 50 and over.  The contribution limit for 401(k) plans in 2020 is $19,500 for people under 50 and $26,000 for people 50 and over.   

Tax rules link eligibility for Roth IRAs to household income.  Tax rules also link the tax deductibility of traditional IRAs to both household income and whether a person and/or spouse contributes to a 401(k).  These rules limit but do not eliminate advantages associated with a strategy of complementing investments in a firm-sponsored retirement plan with investments in a lower-cost IRA.

A person at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan might choose to contribute to the plan if the firm matches employer contributions.   The employee could take full advantage of the matching contribution and divert any additional savings to accounts outside the retirement plan. The employer match will lead to a generous return in the year the contribution is made, however, the annual fee will erode the fund over time.  The use of the IRA for contributions over the match can result in increased retirement wealth if the IRA has lower fees.   

The employee contributing to both the firm 401(k) plan and an IRA may have to place funds in a non-deductible IRA rather than a Roth or deductible IRA depending on her household income.  This allows for deferral of tax.  The worker may be able to convert the conventional IRA to a Roth IRA in a future year but this is a topic for another day.

Once the worker leaves the firm, the entire retirement fund should be rolled over to a low-cost IRA.  Brokerage firms may allow you to combine funds in the two accounts.

A person with at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan that does not match employer contributions should consider and should probably choose a low-cost IRA instead of the firm’s high-cost retirement plan.   This strategy limits contributions and retirement income for some workers because as noted contribution limits are substantially higher for firm-sponsored 401(k) plans than for independent IRAs.  However, the difference between IRA and 401(k) contribution limits may not matter for most workers because many companies, in. a response to IRA non-discrimination rules, limit contributions to a 401(k) plan to a percent of income.

Use of Low or No-Fee Bond Purchases Directly from the U.S. Treasury:  The current market environment is challenging.  The valuations of popular stocks like Microsoft and Apple are at historic highs.  Interest rates are low and for some maturities below the annual 401(k) fee. The actual investment return on many bonds in 401(k) accounts after accounting for the annual fees is negative.

Investors improve outcomes by purchasing I and EE Bonds directly from the Treasury.  The purchases can be done inside or outside of retirement accounts.

There are several advantages associated with the greater use of I-Bonds and E-Bonds directly from the U.S. Treasury.

  • There are no fees on bonds purchased through Treasury Direct and no fees on the purchase of I and EE bonds as stated in these FAQs.  
  • Tax is deferred on I and EE bonds until the instrument is sold.   
  • The tax on matured bonds is limited to deferred interest or capital gains while all funds distributed from conventional retirement accounts are fully taxed as ordinary income.  
  • Individual bonds can be redeemed at maturity at their par value while the value of the bond fund is determined by the prevailing interest rate.

Advantages of use of bonds as part of an overall retirement strategy and advantages associated with the purchase of bonds from Treasury Direct deserve and will get future analysis.

The point stressed here is that investments in bonds at Treasury Direct can reduce lifetime retirement fees.

Concluding Remarks:   Virtually all financial planners emphasize the importance of taking full advantage of retirement plans.  The advice starts as soon as a person enters the workforce even if the person has substantial student debt and a strategy of rapid repayment of student loans would substantially reduce costs, financial risk and stress for the new worker.  The financial planners often don’t worry nearly enough about paying off the mortgage prior to retirement.

Financial planners often don’t mention or stress the importance of high fees, which as discussed here have a large impact on retirement wealth and the likelihood a worker will have a secure retirement.   

The message presented in this post is that workers need to be aware of the retirement plan fees and the overall quality of the plan and come up with an alternative solution if the firm’s plan is inadequate.