The wide world of retirement investing can seem a little overwhelming and can get overly complicated way too quickly. For those not prone to pore over spreadsheets, the abundance of data can lead to paralysis – but it doesn’t have to. Thankfully, planning for your retirement isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. Educating yourself about your accounts – even in small increments – goes a long way. If you’re looking to get a better grasp on how your retirement is shaping up, here are five questions you should be asking.
What Fees are You Paying?
A silent killer to many nest eggs, high fees can decimate even the highest-yielding retirement account. Low fees let you keep more of your investment while allowing you to withdraw a higher rate from your nest egg during retirement. You can use this calculator from Vanguard to compare funds and their fees to see how much you stand to lose. Keep an eye on account fees, transaction fees, fund fees and investment management fees. You may be paying one or all of these depending on your situation. Hint: Aim for funds with fees of 1% or less – anything more and you’re likely throwing money away.
What’s the Average Return?
The average return on your funds shows what your fund has earned in the past. While past performance is never an indicator of future results, it can give you a decent sense of what to expect. Make sure to check the return as far back as the fund shows. Many funds show high five-year averages since the Great Recession, due to the economy’s slow but steady recovery. That trajectory isn’t sustainable, so try to get a sense of the bigger picture before you extrapolate from the data.
What Company Matching Do You Have?
Nowadays, many employers offer a matching program within their 401(k) – but not all matching programs are created equal. Some offer a dollar-for-dollar match, while others only put in 50% of what you contribute up to a certain percentage. Make sure to understand your company’s matching program completely, and try to contribute enough to get the match. You never want to pass up the opportunity to earn free money.
What’s Your 401(k) Vesting Schedule?
In the midst of questions about fees and returns, one aspect of 401(k) accounts often gets lost in the shuffle: the vesting schedule. The vesting schedule determines when you’ll be eligible for any funds your company contributes to your retirement account. Many companies work on a graded vesting schedule. In this system, every year you work makes you eligible for a greater percentage of the employer’s contributions. For example, a five-year equal graded vesting schedule means you’ll only be eligible for 20% of your company’s contributions after one year. Some have a cliff-vesting schedule, which require you work a certain amount of years to be eligible for 100% of what your job has put in. If you work less than that amount of time, you won’t be able to take any contributions your employer has made. It’s important to know your vesting schedule, because it can drastically change how much you’ve actually contributed to your retirement account, especially if you’re expecting to job hop your way up the career ladder.
Should You Choose a Roth or Traditional Account?
When you choose a retirement account, you can decide between a Roth or Traditional account. A traditional account allows you to deduct contributions on your taxes today, but requires you to pay taxes on your withdrawals during retirement. A Roth account does not allow you to deduct anything on your current taxes, but lets you withdraw your money tax-free after you turn 59.5. A Roth is often recommended for young people, who have yet to hit their highest income potential. A traditional account is best for those currently in a high income tax bracket.
One of the best things you can do is to examine your retirement account carefully and ask questions on whatever doesn’t make sense. There’s a slew of free resources available online that can also help you decipher your retirement account and learn more about investing.