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The 411 on Your 401(k)
By Garrett B. Gunderson

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© 2008 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

The financial industry has done a tremendous job of getting companies and individuals alike to heavily rely on 401(k) plans. But in reality, they’re not always a good idea. So why do certain sectors of the financial industry push them so much? Take a guess. They get your money and the government’s money, and they have the rules on their side to hold on to it for a very, very long time!


Even if your employer offers an irresistible “matching” program (where it matches your contribution to your 401(k) up to a certain percentage of your paycheck), it’s still not that great a deal. Why? The stipulations and rules for how and when you use that money make it difficult at best to ever utilize your money.

Some people use the logic that at least they’re saving SOMETHING, no matter how ineffective, for their retirement. Unfortunately, due to a lack of management and knowledge, people are hemorrhaging in these plans, and it impacts their overall well-being and attitude, and is putting hard-earned money at risk.

I’ll suggest some alternatives, but first let’s look at some of the specific reasons why 401(k)s are usually a poor investment strategy for most people and what to look for instead:

1. Poor liquidity. 401(k) investment money is so tied up with penalties and its restrictions are so numerous that it is very difficult to navigate them should you ever require access to the money. There may be ways to take a loan on part of the money or even certain stipulations for hardships, but overall there is very limited access to money along the way before those restrictions are lifted.

2. Your money is market dependent. The performance of your funds becomes dependent upon market factors, which means that you have to be okay with losses in the investment if the market does not cooperate.   Many times there is a limited selection of funds to choose from.  Most participants do not change the original allocation and therefore are not managing risks properly.  Do you have any control over what the market will do?  Do you know what your investment allocations are and what type of stocks or bonds are in the funds that you have chosen?  If not, it is more like gambling than investing.

3. Administrative fees. 401(k)s are subject to various administrative fees in addition to expense ratios and 12-b1 fees (for marketing expenses) for the funds your dollars are invested in. This is something that most people, and even many advisers, ignore. “Hidden” fees often substantially derail your projections.  There is minimal accountability when it comes to administration fees.  It is all too often an unseen expense, since you are not writing the check to pay them—they are automatically being taken out of the account!   Ten thousand dollars invested for 30 years, at a 10 percent interest rate, would hypothetically grow to $174,494.  If we add just 2 percent in fees, it grows to only $100,627.  That is almost a $75,000 difference!

4. Tax-free vs. tax-deferred. If you don’t like paying taxes today, why would you want to pay even more in the future? The tax deferral aspect of 401(k)s, which is touted as a great boon, is actually a primary factor contributing to why most retirees let the money sit, even during their retirement years, for fear of triggering tax consequences. If you just have to pay the taxes at a later date, how is it a tax advantage? Think of it this way: When you defer things in your life—working out, getting gas in your car, a commitment you make to someone—how does that end up working out for you?  If you merely defer taxes, that does not necessarily save anything—it merely defers it. 

5. Higher tax bracket upon withdrawal. The general financial advice out there often fails to take into consideration the possibility of your being in a higher tax bracket during your retirement years than you were previously. If you have achieved any measure of success accumulating money in your retirement plans, you would be in a higher tax bracket at retirement, which means that you’ll be paying a lot more when it comes time to pay the taxes on your 401 (k) savings. But most advisers project that you will be in a lower tax bracket, which doesn’t make much sense. It’s illogical to project healthy returns on a qualified plan while also simultaneously projecting that you’ll be in a lower tax bracket at retirement. There is always the chance that the government might lower taxes or you will have more deductions in the future, but if you are at an age where your kids are a tax deduction today, if they are still living at home in the future, they may not be tax deductible then. 

These are just a few of the many issues surrounding 401(k)s and qualified plans in general.  I could certainly keep pointing out even more limitations, but it comes down to something more basic: YOU.  Your investments should be about you—not just the future you, but you in the present as well. Are you building a nest egg and net worth at the expense of your current production and cash flow? Are you living an ideal life not only financially, but also by doing what you love, taking vacations, spending time with the people you love to be around, and creating time to take care of your health? 

All too often people are delaying their dreams to some future called retirement. They are contributing to 401(k)s faithfully, yet not even working in the field they really want to be in.  These people have fallen prey to the myth that “life will be better when I retire.” What they’re really doing is missing out on the rich memories and wealthy life available to them today. 

Instead of locking up your money and investing in things you have limited knowledge or control over, why not start by investing in yourself?  Why not invest in your own financial education and become empowered about the many ways to invest?  Why not invest in yourself and utilize your own expertise and develop your own abilities, rather than always being dependent on someone or something else that you have no control over? 

This is how you minimize risk and maximize fulfillment.  What would it take to live the life you want today?  If you feel as if you do not have the resources, what about your 401(k) or retirement accounts?  Can you outperform on your own by investing in your passion and gifts in alignment with your values?  I am very confident that you can. In fact, I am so confident, that I’ve issued a 100% guaranteed public challenge that anyone can do it, and so far 100% of my clients have!

What would it look like to fund your dream and build your life as if you were your own greatest asset?  This is the business of YOU.  How could you increase your individual wealth as if you were a valuable stock?  What difference could you make in the world?  How can you contribute and create value in a way that is consistent with enjoying your life today, rather than chronically deferring your happiness?  Where do you have more control—the business of YOU, or with a 401(k)? 

If you are currently invested in areas that you don’t understand—STOP! Use the money to invest in your production. You may think you do not have the time, but it’s all about priorities. A little time now can make a big difference later. How much time do you waste on a weekly basis?  Could you commit to 10 minutes a day, five days a week for a year?  What if you knew that this relatively small time commitment would transform your life?

The basic investing formula most people relied on has resulted in failure.  Money times rate times time (MxRxT) is limited at best.  Handing money over to people you don’t know, with complete uncertainty of the outcome or how it will benefit you now and in the future, has led millions to financial catastrophe.  You can do better. Here are just a few ways how:

  1. Find something you have interest in at a minimum, but hopefully passion in.

  2. Spend time and money cultivating your ability in the area of interest you have chosen.

  3. Donate your time and knowledge to people in order to build your ability to deliver value.

  4. Get feedback from those you have served and capture their testimonials.

  5. Consider starting a “fun” part-time or full-time business by:

  • Partnering with an existing business

  • Contracting with businesses as an independent contractor

  • Setting up ways to educate others in your field of expertise and charge them for that education (seminars, materials, CDs, DVDs, a website, etc.)

  • Finding or creating a job within a firm that utilizes your unique expertise, abilities, and interests.

  • Working as an apprentice and studying those who have gone down a similar path.

  • Considering network marketing that has a product or service that genuinely aligns with you.

The difference between the Business of You vs. mindlessly funding a 401(k) is that the former is exhilarating and profitable, while the latter is uninspiring and uncertain.  The bottom line is that there is a lot more risk involved in investing in 401(k)s than many people realize. YOU are a much better investment.  The truth is that you can save for your future AND have fun, AND be in control of your finances, AND increase your current cash flow. I show people how to do it every day and watch them succeed every day. I’ve seen firsthand that investing in YOU is always a smarter idea than investing in a 401(k). I’ve never met someone who is truly rich because he or she invested in a 401(k). If you don’t know where to get started, consider buying my home-study course New Rules to Get Rich, rulesthat break through old myths and false “conventional” wisdom.

Without exception, all of the rich people I know made their money by investing in themselves and following their passions.  If you’re like most people, however, then you’ve been taught that you have to settle for less now in order to make it big in the future. That is a destructive myth that leads to a mediocre and unsatisfying life NOW and LATER. Don’t fall for it! Don’t buy into the myth that someone else knows better how to manage your life and money than you do!

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and No One Is Paying Attention

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