Catching up with those early withdrawals will be difficult. "When the money is out of your retirement account, you rob yourself of compounded investment returns. And if you don't pay the loan back, you'll have to pay Uncle Sam taxes on the loan and a whopping 10 percent penalty," Almeida says. Plus, if the worst-case scenario should strike and you're forced to file for bankruptcy, your retirement savings in a pension, 401(k), or IRA are protected from creditors, while most other assets are not.
Scrutinize 401(k) fees. All sorts of fees—including administrative, transaction, and investment management charges—can whittle away your nest egg over time. If a worker invests $5,000 annually in a 401(k) over a 35-year period and pays 1.5 percent of the account balance in fees (using constant 2008 dollars and assuming an after-inflation return of 4.9 percent annually), he will have $345,000 at retirement. If the same worker can cut expenses to 0.5 percent of the account balance, his nest egg will be $423,000 at retirement—$78,000 more. But keeping costs low can be difficult because not all 401(k) fees are fully disclosed. Many financial advisers think a reasonable rate to aim for is an expense ratio of 1 percent or less. Low-cost index funds are typically a good way to invest in stocks at rock-bottom prices.
Determine your risk tolerance. After losing $2 trillion in their retirement accounts this year, consumers have a right to feel a little spooked about keeping their nest eggs in the stock market. The key to weathering this financial crisis is to find a level of risk in your portfolio that you can live with that also helps you build wealth for retirement. "People in this environment tend to invest to extremes—too much risk or too little risk—and you pay a price both ways," says Jonathan Pond, a financial planner and author of You Can Do It! The Boomer's Guide to a Great Retirement. "If you have gotten out of stocks, get back into stocks gradually. If you are 90 percent invested in stocks, don't sit there with a decimated portfolio and hope for the best. I would get back to a more reasonably diversified portfolio—about 50 percent in stocks. That way, at least you will mitigate future losses."
Rebalance your portfolio. If you were invested 50 percent in stocks and 50 percent in bonds at the beginning of the year, your portfolio almost certainly doesn't have those proportions anymore, because you have probably taken big losses in stocks. "The temptation this year is going to be to stay where you are or get rid of stocks. Most people today should probably buy stocks," says Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former deputy commissioner for policy at the Social Security Administration. "Whatever ratio people have, people should think about where they want to be and be proactive about getting their portfolio back where it should be."
Evaluate your target-date fund. Target-date funds are designed to automatically shift investments to become more conservative as you age. But these fix-it-and-forget-it funds are hardly one size fits all. A Watson Wyatt analysis of various target-date funds showed that allocations to equities for employees 10 years from retirement varied widely—from 40 percent to 80 percent. And on the day of retirement, equity allocations ranged from 20 to 65 percent. Ask your plan administrator how much of your fund is invested in the stock market at various ages. If that's not a level of risk you can live with, pick a different fund.