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'Hidden' Figures

401(k) Education

Today is Valentine's Day—and, as usual, there’s been the typical seasonal promotions for flowers, candy, and even pajamas. 

I’ve been pretty good over the years remembering those type events—anniversaries (wedding AND dating), birthdays and, yes—Valentine’s Day. But sometimes the time gap between my remembering the date and actually getting around to doing something to commemorate it has been problematic. With Valentine’s Day that can be particularly painful, if only because so many others are scrambling to do the same thing—and at a time when delivery services (and costs), not to mention growing season(s) can be in short supply, relative to the need.

Several years back, I was running late in my preparations—and spotted an email touting a dozen roses for $24.99 (they’re a LOT more expensive now). Of course, for that price (even then), you could only get them in red (though it was Valentine’s Day, after all), and you actually got a glass vase included in that price (with options to “upgrade,” of course). 

So, I’m feeling pretty good about my bargain-hunting, but then the “other” charges emerged; “standard” delivery was another $12.99, and—at least at that (late) date, it cost (another) $9.99 to guarantee Valentine’s Day delivery, another $14.99 if you want it there in the morning, and there’s a “care & handling charge” of $2.99, regardless of delivery date or time. In fact, by the time you add in taxes those $24.99 roses will run you… well, quite a bit more than $24.99.

Not that you’ll see that all presented in one place—well, until the very last screen, anyway.

Surprise ‘Zing’ 

I wonder sometimes if that isn’t how those who request a hardship withdrawal feel—though, disclosures notwithstanding, it’s not like they can see what it’s actually going to cost at the point they make the request.

Oh, they know the amount they need, and presumably request. But then there’s the 20% withholding that comes off the top, but then, come tax time, they’ll find out if that 20% withholding was “enough.” At the same time, they’ll likely discover the 10% penalty (for those who aren’t yet 59½). Less obvious is the retirement savings “ground” they’ve lost to the customary six-month suspension of contributions (and match). And that’s not considering the 401(k) loan they likely had to take first because, after all, we have to make really, really sure that you absolutely have no other way to get to that money. Those “surprises” are likely to be lessened with the emergency savings and withdrawal provisions of the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, of course.[i] 

And then there are the surprises that come WITH retirement. That’s when you “discover” the DISadvantage of pre-tax savings, as Uncle Sam (and his state and city “cousins”) line up for their postponed “cut.” It’s also when Social Security (and Medicare) look to that as fresh income against which benefits (and the cost of benefits) is now means-tested (a.k.a. reduced/taxed).   

Now, if all that seems like a particularly depressing theme for Valentine’s Day, fear not. The impact of the “hidden” costs of retirement—like the hidden costs of that floral arrangement can be muted, if not mitigated, by not waiting until the very last minute to make preparations …


[i] We’ll save for another day the potential impacts on future retirement savings.