Personal Finance

3 Key Factors When Evaluating Your 401(k) Plan

a generic image of a graph
Credit: Shutterstock photo

By Forrest Baumhover

Learn more about Forrest on NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor

Contributing money to a 401(k) plan can be a great way to start saving for retirement. But not all 401(k) plans offer an investment solution that's in the employee's best interest.

So what should plan participants look out for? This isn't a comprehensive list, but here are three important issues to consider:

1. Fees

Every 401(k) provider is required by law to adequately disclose any fees associated with the plan. If you don’t know how much the fees are for the investments offered within your plan, ask your plan administrator. You can then compare the fees to those of an IRA to see whether they’re reasonable.

Fees will depend on the size of your employer and the available funds. (Large employers typically pay less than small employers, and passively managed funds typically charge less than actively managed funds.) If your available options charge more than 1%, consider shopping around outside your plan for less expensive investment options.

2. Diversification

The Employee Retirement Investment Security Act of 1974 requires that 401(k) plans provide the opportunity for participants to choose from a “broad range of investments.” This “broad range” is further clarified as being at least three diversified core investment categories, not including employer stock. However, there are no strict guidelines that define how diversified the options must be. A high-fee plan with three under-performing, actively managed funds could still meet the diversification requirement.

The 401(k) option you choose should meet your diversification expectations. More importantly, it should complement your investment approach, not define it for you.

3. Contributions

There are two possible types of contributions:


If your company offers to provide a matching contribution when you contribute to your 401(k), that’s free money to you once it’s vested, meaning you have full ownership over the employer-provided assets. Depending on how the match works and how much it is, this could be a great way to build your 401(k), even if the plans’ fund selections are less than desirable. A 100% employer match is basically the same as doubling your money.


How much do you expect to save? If you want to sock away the maximum amount of tax-deferred money, then there’s no comparison between a 401(k) and an IRA. With a 401(k) you can contribute a maximum of $18,000 in 2016, plus an additional $6,000 catch-up contribution if you’re 50 or older. With an IRA you can only contribute $5,500, plus $1,000 as a catch-up for those 50 or older. But if you're considering saving a relatively small amount per month — say, a few hundred dollars — take a close look at 401(k) plan costs, investment options and whether there’s an employer match. In some cases, an IRA could be a better choice than a 401(k).

Unbiased advice

If you need help evaluating your company’s 401(k) plan, the investment options available to you, or the best way for you to start saving for retirement, seek unbiased advice from a fee-only financial planner who can help tailor your planning based on your situation.

Forrest Baumhover is a fee-only financial planner and the principal ofWestchase Financial Planningin Tampa, Florida.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.