What You Need to Know about Your 401K Plan

Before entering your employer’s 401K plan, you need to decide:

  • Percent of pre-tax contributions
  • Percent of post-tax contributions
  • Percent of employer match

At the very minimum you want to contribute whatever % your employer matches, this way you can get the $ that your employer sets aside for your 401K.

Preferably you will maximize % of pre- and post-tax contributions regardless of employer match.

Percent of pre-tax contributions are useful for reducing your AGI (adjusted gross income). Percent of post-tax contributions are useful for building up your retirement nest egg in a way that is automated (out of sight, out of mind, therefore out of impulsive spending if you have those habits).

The only time when you may consider reducing (never eliminating!) your pre-tax contributions is when you have a significant loan term that has a less favorable % return than if you take that percent of your paycheck to pay down the loan. Even then, calculate carefully whether your investment returns in your 401K may fare better. Example: you have a mortgage loan at 6%. You may calculate the probability that you’d do better paying this down sooner versus building up a nest egg 401K that compounds interest over time.

Part of the investment election process includes:

  • Choice of funds
  • Expense ratios (cost)
  • Redemption fees
  • Your investment plan or strategy

Employers often offer both passive index (mutual) funds AND actively managed funds. Employees are able to choose what products they want their contribution to go toward.

Basically the options are in broad categories of “Bonds, Stocks/equities, and Target Retirement”.

Bond funds are just that — made of bond products, although you’d want to look at what are actually in those bond products. Sometimes these include treasury (US dollars) and other mortgage backed securities, some of these riskier than others.

Stock funds are made up of all or selection of stocks in the stock market that is supposed to represent “the market”.

Target retirement funds tend to be actively managed (more expensive) but is promoted as “you don’t have to do anything, we’ll do it for you” products. These are sometimes called Life cycle fund or similar name. It’s supposed to shift the allocation of lower-risk (usually bonds & cash) versus higher-risk (usually stocks) products as you age, so that you won’t be exposed to too much risk as you near retirement age. I don’t buy these since I can click buttons and enter % of allocation for bonds:stocks based on risk tolerance and overall retirement portfolio (important if the household has dual working partners so you are dealing with 2 retirement portfolios not one).

My rule is to ALWAYS GO FOR PASSIVE INDICES. In other words, products that are a version of “S&P500 index”, “Total stock market index”, “Total bond market index”, “Total international stock market index”, and “Russell 2000 index”. This is because the cost of owning these (expense ratio) makes a huge difference over time as you leverage compounding interest, without paying the 401K management company a higher cost to buy other funds. In 401K these actively managed funds tend to be ‘sector based’, such as ‘healthcare’ or ‘technology’. I ignore those, since I can buy sector mutual or ETF funds for way cheaper at Vanguard’s retirement account.

‘s an example of a Russell 2000 index fund expense ratio (cost) at a major employer’s 401K fund selection:

Same employer’s sector-based (science/tech) actively managed fund:

Granted, the “Morning Star” boxes are not identical because the science/tech fund is more Large Cap-Growth (big companies) while Russell 2000 focuses on smaller companies (high risk and high reward Small Cap-Blend), but if you want to focus on big companies then you might as well go for the total stock market index fund (cheaper Large Cap-Blend) which costs:

Finally, investment strategy is based on where you want your money contributed when it is automatically entered into your 401K account, and how often you want to move your money based on market conditions (although you will never move it while incurring any redemption/short-term trading) fees. Moving money isn’t taking it out (distribution — a No-No) — it’s simply transferring monies in a particular fund into another particular fund to match your (“household”/family) overall portfolio’s target asset allocation.

For example, if the S&P index fund has done well but is looking over priced, I will move all/a percent of money out of this into another fund that is pulling back (looks cheaper). Usually I have enough time to plan because I can’t move money between accounts without incurring redemption fees, so I may start watching a particular index that appears to be heading to lower prices and wait until I can “sell high” (fund that’s doing well and moving money out of” to “buy low” (fund that’s cheaper).

Disclaimer: Not a CPA, not a Financial Advisor, Not affiliated with FINRA. Just an individual who has taken time to educate myself on money management and I usually read Prospectus(es).

What to Do If You Lose Your Wallet

Some time ago, I lost my wallet, and within the hour that I realized my wallet had been lost, I was able to do the most important “damage control” tasks like:

  • notifying credit card companies to cancel existing cards and issue new card numbers
  • downloading a duplicate health insurance card
  • figure out how to replace driver license
  • putting a “freeze” on opening new lines of credit

Other than knowing an exciting day of waiting at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) is in my future, I am glad I haven’t lost anything I cannot replace.

Since my credit card transactions all come with email alerts, if anyone had tried to buy anything with the cards, I’d be notified immediately via email.

In terms of lines of credit being opened, this is where putting a “credit freeze” is critical. In the U.S. the 3 major credit reporting agencies will get a record “pull” anytime when anyone inquires about your credit or someone (hopefully yourself) is trying to open up a line of credit: maybe this is applying for a new credit card, or apply for a store card, trying to buy a car, trying to inquire about a mortgage or line of equity loan etc…. by putting on a “freeze” it forces the inquirer to call a number before any data can be pulled. This way you will know if someone is trying to use your identity and take a loan in your name.

The “credit freeze” is new for me this time around when I lost my wallet, but I’m not actually worried about my credit cards being used in appropriately because of the email alerts and also because I acted extremely quickly, and have online access to all my credit card transactions.

While it’s very disturbing to have lost my wallet — I forget to appreciate how much having a method of identification factors into daily financial transactions — I also appreciate how technology lets me minimize financial damage in a quick and timely manner. Of course I’m still hoping a kind-hearted person will turn in my wallet to the police and I have filed a police report.

Do you have a “lost wallet” action plan?

Value of Money

Depending on situation, money buys:

  • stability
  • security
  • choices
  • freedom
  • influence

I am under no delusion that most of what I enjoy today in my life: stability, security, choices (to work or not to work, to do certain types of work, to work only certain hours), and freedom (being able to immigrate and stay in this country) were supported by a level of financial means.

Read some personal accounts on Quora of why people have to go to “cash advance” gouge-level interest services or why they have to line up to renew food stamps, and I appreciate all the more how “money-supported stability” makes the difference between maintaining life in the middle class versus becoming a member of the working poor.

Thus, I can’t in my good conscience talk down money like I’m holier than needing a currency. All the other stuff like bartering and in-kind services are simply other currencies that “money” represents as the de-facto symbol.