Q: My company’s 401(k) plan charges high administrative fees, and the expense ratios on the investments offered are too high. How do I maximize my retirement savings?
A: I don’t care if you are in the most expensive 401(k) plan in the world; until those fees reach the value of your employer’s matching dollars — and they never will — the plan is well worth that cost.
It’s safe to assume you would gladly pay $1 or $2 in fees to get $50 or $100 back from your employer.
That’s essentially how an employer match works: Many companies kick in 50 percent or 100 percent of every dollar you contribute, up to a limit. Sure, it hurts when you lose a portion of your contribution — and of that employer contribution — to fees, but I’ve found that free money is pretty effective at stopping the burn.
To be clear, I’m not saying you have to suck it up. If you feel like your plan’s fees are grossly unfair, you should:
1) Do what you can to keep your investment fees low, by choosing low-cost investments like index funds over expensive managed options like target-date funds, and
2) raise the issue with HR. If you rally enough of your co-workers, your company might be willing to shop around for better options.
Then take your money elsewhere.
You can — and in many cases, especially if you are in an expensive plan, you should — contribute to both a 401(k) and an IRA.
The way to go: Contribute until you get the full match, then put any additional money you can save for the year into an IRA, which has a contribution limit of $5,500 in 2016 (if you are 50 or older, you get to throw in another $1,000). If your 401(k) doesn’t offer a match, skip it and start with the IRA. IRA account providers frequently charge no fees (assuming you are not working with a financial adviser) and give you access to a huge pool of investments; you can easily find low-cost funds.
And if you are lucky — or let’s say strategic — enough to max out that IRA for the year, and you want to save more?
Your 401(k), even if a total dud, is worth revisiting at that point, for one big reason: It has an $18,000 contribution limit ($24,000 if you are 50 or older), which makes it the single best way to get a lot of tax-deferred money put away for retirement.
Finally, if you leave this job, please take the balance in that plan with you by rolling it into an IRA (or into your new employer’s plan, if it’s a step up from the old one).
Arielle O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.