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How and Why to Check on Your 401(k)

If you’re like many Americans, you may feel some unease when there is volatility in the markets. No matter what happens, try not to cash out your retirement savings, a move that could trigger taxes and reduce your retirement security in the long run. Be patient, and let your money keep growing through the market’s ups and inevitable downs. But, do pay attention to the investment choices you make within these plans and their diversification.

Now could be the perfect time to give yourself a retirement plan checkup, perhaps with the help of a CFP® professional or your accountant. Just like your car, your retirement plan needs regular maintenance to make sure it will get you where you’re going. A retirement plan tune up can feel like a chore. But you may get a pleasant surprise as you open the statements and check your online balances.

Here are five steps to a retirement plan tune up.

1. Remember all your different retirement accounts. Many people have multiple IRAs and 401(k)s from different employers. Make a list. If you have old 401(k)s at previous employers and haven’t accessed the accounts or collected the paper statements, now would be a great time to reach out either to the employer or the financial institution that held the account to get copies of statements. You might also have to reset passwords to gain access to online accounts.

Consider rolling over your old 401(k)s into your current one, or into IRAs. That will make it easier to do your financial checkup each year.

2. Total your savings. One good rule of thumb is to save about 10% of your annual income for retirement. But if you fell behind when you were young, you might need to save more than that in your middle and later years. You can get a sense of how much you’ll need at retirement and if you’re on track by using calculators like this. Factor in your individual circumstances. Perhaps you hope for an early retirement or face a new health problem.

3. Rebalance your portfolio. Add up the investments in different categories across your plans. You might have, for instance, $150,000 in stock mutual funds, including $75,000 in a 401(k) from your current job and $75,000 in a 401(k) from your previous job. You might have $25,000 in bond funds in your 401(k) and $25,000 in bond funds in a Roth IRA you opened a few years ago.

Determine your asset allocation: In our hypothetical case, it is 75% stocks and 25% bonds. An increase in stock prices might mean that you have too much money in stocks, which could leave you vulnerable to a sudden decline in the market.

Remember this: It took about five years to recover from the 2007-08 Great Recession. Some people who were heavily invested in stocks and had planned to retire shortly after the crash were in trouble.

You can take care of an out-of-balance portfolio with a quick call to your personal financial advisor, or the advisor or financial institution that works with your 401(k).

4. Check on the fees. You can’t control the market, but you can control how much you’re paying in fees. In your 401(k), look for fees of less than 1% total on your investments, including the amount you’re paying for your funds (the average for mutual funds has fallen to about 0.6% annually), plus the amount of administrative fees you are paying to have a 401(k) at all. By law, your human resources department should be able to tell you how much you’re paying.

5. Finally, take a gut check. Can you sleep at night, knowing how much is in your retirement account, and how much you have in stocks versus bonds or other less volatile investments, including cash? Do you have enough time until retirement to recover from any future declines in the market? How comfortable are you with the inevitable risks of the market in order to earn the rewards? You can also take a survey from the University of Missouri as a guideline.

A CFP® professional can help you with all the tasks involved in a retirement plan tune up. He or she can help you answer the most important question of all: Is your retirement plan right for you?

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401(k) Retirement Plans Asset Allocation Retirement Planning IRAs Roth Accounts