Tools to Better Understand Your 401(k)

A 401(k) statement isn’t always clear. Here are some resources to help decipher your retirement plan.

By SHARE

The Lifetime Income Disclosure Act proposed in May seems to have a reasonable objective: help people determine how much retirement income would be produced by their 401(k). For years, financial experts have touted the benefits of helping consumers understand their retirement trajectories. Otherwise, how will they know if they're on the right track to a successful retirement?

Financial egg with "401K" on the side
Financial egg with "401K" on the side

Reasonable or not, the legislation has become a perennial in the garden of consumer finance proposals. It gets introduced. Consumer groups applaud it. Investment firms say the goal has merit. Then they raise a host of operational problems in implementing such a law. Leading the list is their opposition to pretty much any government mandate. They prefer voluntary compliance.

[Read: How to Take Control of Your 401(k).]

Fidelity, the biggest provider of retirement accounts, responded last month to U.S. Department of Labor proposals to implement lifetime income disclosure rules: "Information provided in a static format does not promote participant engagement," Fidelity wrote in a letter to the labor department. "As an equally important consideration, the disclosures that would need to accompany the projections and illustrations would greatly add to both the length and complexity of participant statements, increasing the risk of reader disengagement from any of the information provided on the statement."

Please raise your hand along with me if you aren't really sure what this means. In Fidelity's defense, adding any additional required materials to customer statements may produce diminishing returns. Consumers have greeted recent expansions in 401(k) statements – aimed to provide more transparency to account fees and performance – with disinterest.

Many other investment firms also weighed in with their own objections. More fundamentally, exactly what assumptions about future investment returns and rates of inflation should be used in calculating lifetime income projections? What is the ideal or "right" rate of withdrawing assets from a plan during retirement? Even Nobel Prize winners wouldn't agree on such numbers.

What does Washington say? Here is the description provided by the Congressional Research Service of the current version of the proposed law:

"[The Lifetime Income Disclosure Act] requires such lifetime income disclosure to set forth the lifetime income stream equivalent of the participant's or beneficiary's total benefits accrued. Defines a lifetime income stream equivalent of the total benefits accrued as the monthly annuity payment the participant or beneficiary would receive if those total accrued benefits were used to provide lifetime income streams to a qualified joint and survivor annuitant.

"Directs the Secretary of Labor to: (1) issue a model lifetime income disclosure, written in a manner which can be understood by the average plan participant; and (2) prescribe assumptions that plan administrators may use in converting total accrued benefits into lifetime income stream equivalents."

[Read: 3 Highly Personal Threats to Your Retirement.]

Are we all clear on this?

In the interest of plain language – whether driven by government mandate or voluntary industry compliance – employees and retirees with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts would be better off with clear answers to practical questions. Here are 10 basic retirement plan questions that merit clear and helpful answers, and some tips about trends and where to find answers.

1. Based on your current 401(k) contribution level and investment results, what kind of retirement is in store for you?

The Employment Benefit Research Institute does an annual retirement confidence survey that contains troubling conclusions about the state of retirement prospects for many Americans. The 2013 survey results can be found at http://www.ebri.org/surveys/rcs/2013/.

2. Do you know what your Social Security benefits would be for different claiming ages?

The Social Security Administration has a tool to provide you access to your earnings history and projected benefits at www.ssa.gov/myaccount.

3. Are you saving enough?

Most people should be saving 10 to 15 percent of their salaries, with higher levels needed for those who wait until their 40s to get serious about retirement savings. Yet most people are saving far less.

4. How much money do you have?

Make a date with yourself to spend an hour with your latest plan statement. It may be time very well spent.

5. What are you paying in fees?

Investment management companies have been steadily lowering retirement plan fees in response to sustained criticism and competition from Vanguard and other low-fee investment firms. The Department of Labor has a primer on retirement plan fees at www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/undrstndgrtrmnt.html.

6. How has your account performed?

See the advice for question #4.

7. How does your 401(k) performance compare with other investment choices you can make within your plan?

This will require more work on your part, but your plan statement and usually your plan's website will include tools to let you look at investment returns of the various funds and other investment choices offered by the plan.

[See: 10 Things to Watch When Interest Rates Go Up.]

8. How does your performance compare with investment results in the plans of other companies?

Check out BrightScope at www.brightscope.com or Morningstar at www.morningstar.com/Cover/Funds.aspx.

9. What is your employer's match policy, how does it compare with industry standards and are you taking full advantage of the match?

Smart401k provides a helpful discussion of employer matches at http://www.smart401k.com/Content/retail/resource-center/retirement-investing-basics/company-match.

10. If you change jobs, what are you going to do with your current employer's 401(k)?

Many people cash in their retirement plans when they change jobs instead of rolling them over into new plans or IRAs. Most of them are making a mistake.