Worried Your 401k Might Not Do the Job? Here are Three Reasons Why It Might Not!

When you entered your 50’s you likely began to pay more and more attention to your long-term retirement savings, like your 401k. This defined contribution plan is emblematic of a range of retirement saving accounts across American for private sector workers. Every day, week or month you log into your account to check your balance. You may also conscientiously inspect your quarterly earnings statement. You see your contributions posted, inspect your company’s match and pray the market has gone up.

Trying to make up for lost ground, you are likely taking advantage of the IRS catch-up provision allowing workers over 50 to deposit into their 401k’s an additional $6,000 per year in pre-tax earnings. You feel encouraged but you still wonder if your 401k is going to do the job.

You may ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I on track to reach my retirement goals?
  • Am I ahead or behind?
  • Will my 401k be big enough when I retire?
  • Once I do retire, how does this account convert to income?
  • How do I know I have enough so I don’t run out before I pass?

These are good questions, but consider asking a much different question!

"When was the last time you hired someone to do a job?”

Now, this may seem like an odd question. Trust me and follow along… You are likely not a business owner or ever had to “meet a payroll,” so this question might be rather peculiar. But seriously, when was the last time you hired someone to do a job? You actually do this every day when you purchase goods and services in the marketplace!

Consider your cell phone service? You scan the available cell carriers, compare your needs and expectations with a vendor’s rate plans, service areas, features, and benefits and basically hire who you perceive to be the best to do the job. We make these types of buying decisions every day, some more significant than others. The decisions could range from a shop to service your automobile to a pest control company to handle the bugs at home. Hopefully, these relationships go well, but if not, we fire them and switch to someone else who can do the job to our expectations.

Let me tell you a story...

About 10 years ago my wife Susan and I embarked on a complete makeover of our home. The home was built in 1961 and needed an entire renovation. The project was so significant that we were forced to move out for 12 months while the house was completely gutted, added on to and rebuilt. With four kids ranging from 8 to 17, it was a huge undertaking. A year before we began, we spent months drawing and redrawing plans to guide the project.

By the time the renovation was complete, we had engaged a range of sub-contractors. With each relationship, we set expectations, gathered bids, selected vendors, and materials, managed those expectations and inspected each final outcome. When a problem arose we found ourselves huddled around the plans to clarify expectations and managing the project back to our original design. The project was so significant we hired a general contractor to help us along the way. The endeavor was not without its twists and turns, disappointments and surprises. In retrospect, advanced planning and hiring the right people was the key.

Building or renovating a home can be a rewarding experience, but so is preparing for one’s retirement. You could live in retirement for a third of your life! Unfortunately, most Americans spend more time preparing for a two-week vacation than preparing for their golden years. Since most American’s in the private sector have a 401k, IRA, or investment account then in effect they have hired someone to do a job.

You might not remember making a buying decision with your 401k. Upon starting work, a person from your Human Resource Department may have told you about the plan. You instinctively knew it was important to save, so you signed up. And besides, they said they would match part of your contributions and the plan would grow pre-tax. But, now you are thinking more about your 401k and may be wondering if it's up for the task. Consider these more probing questions:

  • What job did you hire that 401k for?
  • What is its objective?
  • When you stop working you’re going to need income other than Social Security, right?
  • And you want that income to last until you pass, correct?
  • The whole idea is to not run out of money, right?

But running out of money is only part of the expectation, you want enjoyment in retirement!

  • You want enough income to live the retirement lifestyle of your choice, correct?
  • You want to maintain your pre-retirement standard of living, right?

Learn About our Free Pre-Retirement Crash Course       Learn More

So, will your 401k deliver? Can it do the job?

If you are like most Americans, their eyes glaze over at this point. It’s like that time I walked into the great room of my completely torn apart house to see my contractor and foreman looking up into the open attic with a puzzled look on their faces. I asked what was wrong and they said, “We are wondering how this roof is being held up because none of this was done to code.” That was not a fun day!

USA Today recently reported (2/13/2014) that Fidelity Investments, the nation’s largest 401k provider, clocked the average 401k balance for pre-retirees over age 55 at $165,200. Let’s just assume at age 65 this balance is $300,000. Conventional wisdom used to say that you could withdrawal 4% of that asset for income each year with a reasonable expectation that you wouldn’t run out of money. Today, research suggests the percentage is closer to 3%.

Let’s see if your 401k can do the job…

$300,000 times 3% means $9,000 a year in pre-tax annual income or $750 per month. Add the average Social Security check of $1,300 and you have $2,050 a month. Does this meet your “golden years” expectations? Is this getting the job done in your mind? But you aren’t average! You have accumulated over $1,000,000 or more in retirement assets. Congratulations! That means given $2,000,000 in assets you can live on $60,000 a year in pre-tax income. This is still disappointing even after Social Security, especially when you have been earning far more each year! <?p>

Who wants to take that kind of decrease in income?

Unlike any time in recent American history, there is much that today’s pre-retirees are simply unaware of when it comes to planning a successful retirement. Today’s pre-retirees are facing a much different landscape than their parents or grandparents, especially those in the private sector. We call this a “YOYO Retirement.” In other words, “you’re on your own!”

Those who work in the public sector are largely covered by government pensions. However, for those in the private sector including business owners who often look to the sale of their businesses to support them in retirement, pensions simply aren’t a part of the average retirement package anymore.

So, what’s the default path most private sector workers are destined?

They pursue what I call an Assets-Only Retirement. They accumulate assets in a 401k type pre-tax plan and/or other non-qualified investment account(s). This approach alone can be incomplete and is fraught with three serious pitfalls. Remember, retirement preparedness is not solely about accumulating a large asset by retirement age. Rather, it’s more about crafting an efficient income stream to last a lifetime.

Here is why an Assets-Only Retirement falls short.

Pitfall #1: Actuarial Science – Defined Benefit Pension Plans incorporate actuarial science, but Defined Contribution Plans, like a 401k do not. In short, pensions provided lifetime guaranteed income with lifetime survivorship benefits. Defined Contribution Plans, by themselves, lack this important financial power. To improve income and mitigate longevity risk faced in retirement, the key is to incorporate actuarial science back into one’s planning.

Pitfall #2: Constant vs. Fluctuating Return - The main problem during the distribution or spending phase of retirement is withdrawing income for living expenses in a fluctuating return environment. To garner growth, assets typically remain at risk in the market during the spend-down phase. Many assume we live in a constant interest rate environment. We do not! Depleting assets for living expenses in a down market can be devastating to one’s retirement nest egg.

This describes an inherent risk called sequencing of returns and must be understood if assets are left in the market to produce income for retirement. The manifestations of this risk are not faced in the pre-retirement and so many are caught off guard. An adequately funded, non-market correlated volatility-type buffer can be beneficial to combat this risk, potentially bolstering retirement income by 30-50% or more. Unfortunately, most are unaware of how to effectively position this remedy.

Pitfall #3: Withdrawal Rate Risk – Understanding Pitfall #2, do you know the appropriate percentage you can safely withdraw from your retirement asset and be assured you won’t run out of money? Extensive research has been conducted by some of the best economic minds to determine this percentage. A January 21, 2013 research paper by MorningStar titled “Low Bond Yields and Safe Portfolio Withdrawal Rates” concluded, “a 4% initial withdrawal rate has a 50% probability of success over a 30 year period.” I don’t like those odds, do you?

Can you see why pursuing an Assets-Only Retirement is a problem?

The bottom line is your 401k Plan or investment account by itself will not do the job! Oh, it can provide income in retirement, but way below what it could produce if positioned properly.

The good news is that pre-retirees, if they catch it in time, can overcome all three pitfalls of an Assets-Only Retirement. When properly designed in the accumulation phase of life, one can potentially increase retirement income by 30% to 50% or more, without spending any more money or taking on additional risk. This can be accomplished through an integration of both investments and actuarial science. Understanding this positioning could mean thousands more in additional retirement income and a greater sense of control over one’s financial future.

With over 11,000 baby boomers retiring each day, many are beginning to realize that their defined contribution plans might not be up for the job. Continued learning is key to creating an increased measure of financial peace in one's golden years.

Related Articles

About the Author: Mark McKell

Mark McKell is the Managing Partner of McKell Partners, a full-service wealth management practice. Its mission is to “Help individuals and families experience financial peace so they can focus their lives on what matters most." Mark is focused on providing the personalized financial services retirees and pre-retirees need to combat the risks associated with retirement.

With a BS in Accounting from Brigham Young University, Mark has worked as a financial professional since 1985 and has acquired a depth and breadth of knowledge that comes from over three decades of experience in a variety of financial arenas. Those arenas range from public accounting with Ernst & Young to positions as a corporate controller, CFO, and CEO. In 2001, he decided to devote his experience and training to helping people with their personal financial goals.

Away from work, Mark is a dedicated family man and committed to his church, country and community. He and his wife, Susan, have been married for over 35 years, and have four married children including six wonderful grandchildren.

To learn more about McKell Partners and their services, simply visit mckellpartners.com. Visit Mark’s personal blog at markmckell.com where he shares his thoughts about what matter most.

Learn About our Free Pre-Retirement Crash Course

Learn more

What will I learn from the Pre-Retirement Crash Course?

  • Your Financial Chessboard – A new perspective of how to look at your financial life.
  • Four important truths in navigating pre-retirement life.
  • The difference between the accumulation and distribution phases of life.
  • How to better visualize your financial future, by “beginning with the end in mind.”
  • Six important guide posts to developing effective financial strategies.
  • Seven important “down the mountain” rules for retirement survival.
  • And finally, eight key insights in choosing a financial advisor and much, much more.