How to Deal With a 401(k) Plan That Sucks

Most of the time when you read about 401(k)s, it’s something like, “contribute at least up to the company match,” or, “don’t put too much in company stock.” But what do you do when your company’s 401(k) sucks?

Problem: Your company doesn’t offer a match.

Solution: Contribute as much as you can to a Roth IRA, then contribute to your 401(k).

I recommend maxing out a Roth IRA before contributing to a Traditional 401(k). The reason is that Roths are funded on an after-tax basis, but you withdraw the money at retirement tax free. I believe most people will be paying more taxes in the future, so a Roth is usually the best solution.

I also recommend contributing to a Roth IRA even if your plan offers a Roth 401(k). The reason is because you can always withdraw your contribution to a Roth IRA without penalty before retirement if disaster strikes and you needthe money.

After you max out the Roth IRA, go back to your 401(k) plan. A 401(k) has great tax benefits. It reduces your current taxable income. Your contributions compound tax-deferred or tax-free, depending on with type you use (Traditional or Roth). It’s also an easy, automatic way to save for retirement. A company match is nice, but it’s not the best reason to use a 401(k) to save for retirement.

Problem: Most or all of the funds offered in your plan suck.

Solution: Figure out just how bad the funds are and decide if saving outside a 401(k) makes more sense.

Great, so how do you do that?

I’d consider a fund ‘bad’ if it has higher-than-average fees for its type and middling or below returns compared to its peers over many different time periods. If just some of the funds in your plan fit that description, invest instead in the ones that are good, even if it means overweighting your asset allocation. That is, if you’re offered a good stock fund in your plan, but no good bond funds, go ahead and invest in the stock fund. Outside your 401(k), say in an IRA, you can overweight bonds to compensate.

If truly all of the funds are bad, you have to consider not contributing to the 401(k) at all. Before you do, though, consider any employer match. If you’re offered a match, you’re almost certainly better off contributing to the match maximum and investing in bad funds. That’s because the immediate 50% or 25% return a company match gives you counteracts the general suckiness of the fund you invest in. For example, if you’re offered a 50% match on contributions up to 6%, go ahead and contribute the 6%. Even if your fund returns -20%, you’re still netting a positive 30% return – great by any standard.

So what if you have the worst situation of all – the funds suck and there’s no company match? In that case, there’s a very good chance you’d be better off not contributing to the 401(k) at all. Instead, invest in an IRA. I recommend a Roth IRA, but Traditional is good, too. That way, you can choose any fund you want.

Problem: Your match is in company stock and the stock is going nowhere.

Solution: Sell your company stock as soon as you can.

In 2006, Congress passed the Pension Reform Act that allows 401(k) participants to sell company matching stock. For stock given before the law was passed, you can sell 1/3 of the total each year over three years. For future matches, you can sell immediately. I advocate selling matching stock as soon as you can anyway, but this is especially true if the stock is declining or flat.