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6 Things 401(k) Participants Need to Know

Our industry spends a lot of time and money educating workers about the advantages and mechanics of saving for retirement. But here are six things I think too often go unsaid.

Your 401(k) isn’t free.

That’s right, it isn’t free. It may be heavily subsidized by your employer, and you’re likely paying a lot less for the fund(s) and features you have access to than if you were to try and buy them on your own (say, via an IRA or brokerage account) — but even then, it’s probably not “free,” nor should you expect it to be. But if you don’t know how much you are paying, you should find out. 

You’ve probably been provided some information about your 401(k) plan fees already. You can find out how to use that information here. More information about 401(k) fees is available here.   

That employer match isn’t “free” either.

You may have heard that you should save enough to receive the full employer match — that “you don’t want to leave that free money on the table.” It is, of course “free” money to you when you save in your workplace retirement plan. But not every employer provides a matching contribution, and it’s a real out-of-pocket cost for those that do. Remember that, if you’re lucky enough to have an employer who makes a matching contribution — and thank them.

Saving to the level of the match is probably not enough.

As noted above, many employers choose to encourage your decision to save for retirement by providing the financial incentive of an employer matching contribution. While there are a number of factors that go into determining the amount and level of the match, how much you need to set aside for your own personal retirement goals is almost certainly not one of those factors. 

You certainly don’t want to leave any of that match on the table by not contributing to at least that level. But if that’s where you stop saving, you’re probably going to come up short. 

How much you save is more important than how you invest what you save.

There are bad investments that can cost you money, and good investments that can help your account grow faster. But what really matters in achieving financial security for retirement is how much you save (including the amount of the employer match, if any). 

For more information, see “Missing the Forest for the Trees” here.  

If you’ve never tried to figure out how much you’ll need to live in retirement, you may not live very comfortably in retirement.

Surveys routinely show that most Americans have not even tried to guess how much money they will need to live on in retirement, much less actually made an educated guess. Sure, it sounds complicated, and sure, things can change over time — and yes, you’re busy. But saving for retirement with no idea of how much you might need is a bit like going on a long trip in a car you don’t know with a gas gauge that isn’t working. 

Chances are, your 401(k) plan has some resources that will help you do the calculation. If not, or if you’d like a “second opinion,” try the free Ballpark E$timate at

If you don’t know what you’re doing, get help.

And not the kind you might get from Joe in the lunchroom, Sally in accounting or “experts” you’ve never met. If there’s a professional advisor working with your 401(k) plan, that’s a great place to start.