Your 401K Plan – Can You Bank On It?

Although often touted as a retirement firewall, the 401K plan has come under recent attack by many financial pundits as a pie-in-the-sky dream, founded on a dodge, finally exposed by our financial crisis for the miserable fraud that it always was. This is alarming for the millions of baby-boomers who have been trusting in deriving at least 4 percent of their yearly retirement income from their 401Ks. Is this just more fear-mongering, or is there really something to it?

The reason for this hostility is obvious enough, according to a recent Time magazine article. Whatever money you put into your 401K ten years ago, take about 25 percent from that and that’s what your 401K is worth today. You would have done better to put your savings into a savings account (at least they’re insured), or stuff your mattress with the cash. If the 401K plan is such a disaster, why do financial planners, whose job it is to devise a portfolio of holdings that they claim will keep a retiree in the black for 30 years, still advise their clients to count on this leaking bag?

It seemed smart enough when it first came out in the early 80s. It was named after the section of the tax code that permitted it. You pay into it by automatic deductions from your pay. You never get your hands on the money, so you can’t spend it. It wasn’t as though you couldn’t drop it if you wanted. If your financial condition required it, you could suspend it any time you wanted – it was your call.

I can save my own money, you might say, but there’s more to the 401K plan than forcing discipline on you. It’s better than a savings account because your company matches what you contribute. Most employers liked it better than their pension plans, which always reduced their bottom line. Most dropped those plans and took up with the 401K system instead. Unlike company pension plans, if you left the company, the money in it was all yours. Best of all, it couldn’t be taxed. The IRS does get some in the end, a levy they call it, a tolerable percentage. Your net income doesn’t include your contributions, so you’re being taxed for less than what you actually make. It was conceived as a well paid executive’s benefit, but it quickly became available to anyone who could stand to have a meaningful amount withheld from each paycheck.

That’s not as bad as you might have first thought. Yes, the National Bureau of Economic Research predicted that an average 401K plan, over the life of a career,  would provide about 50 percent of retirement income, but the truth is that today’s retirees can expect their plan to render a mere 8 percent. The reasons for this poor return mainly falls on the participant. Most didn’t contribute enough to hold the amount needed to cover 50 percent of their retirement. Poor investments in other financial vehicles required the participants to cash in early. Other investments are critical to cover the other percentage of retirement income the plan doesn’t cover. The recent crash has wiped out many of these investments, causing the retiree to draw more from their 401K than they expected. The problem, then, is not that the 401K with employer contributions won’t result in the expected savings. The problem is that other investments may well cause you to use more of your 401K savings earlier than expected in your retirement.

Yes, the 401K plan still has the potential to support a retiree in the future, that is, if enough is contributed. Raising your contribution will at least assure you that there is more to draw on when all else fails. Other schemes are being proposed, but the 401K still has a life and can still provide the income to future retirees when they’re in their golden years.