The Truth About
401k Retirement Plans

"Invest in 401k retirement plans." That's the one thing I learned about finances when I first came into the workforce. It was the smart financial move that everyone was doing. Since everyone was doing it, it had to be right. Right? Boy was I wrong.

What I'm about to share with you will shift your paradigm about the beloved retirement plan and all the 401k information you have ever been told.

401k investments remind me of a bit that comedian Jerry Seinfeld does about dry cleaning.

Let's get one thing straight about dry cleaning right now. It doesn't exist. There's no way of cleaning with dry... And we walk into these places with the big signs out front, "Dry Cleaning," and somehow never question how they were able to put this absurd concept over on us.
This is how I believe most people approach the 401k retirement plan. Like dry cleaning, most tend to never question what goes on back there. We see the pretty "401k retirement plan sign" and since everyone is doing it, we assume that everything is OK.

So what makes this qualified retirement plan look like such a lucrative deal to so many people? Let's look at how it's often pitched to employees.

  • Employer Match

    To be honest, this was the one that did it for me. "It's free money," you would hear. Who doesn't want free money? I do, of course.

  • Tax Saving Tip

    You're putting your money in before you pay taxes. So, you're saving all this money by not having to pay taxes. And your money continues to grow faster because you don't have to pay taxes on the gains within the plan.

  • Future Lower Tax Bracket

    You will access your cash when you retire. Since your monthly income will be less than it was when you were working, you will be in a lower tax bracket. This sounds like a great plan!

  • Easy

    Once you set up the plan, it runs on its own. The contributions are taken out directly from your paycheck and you don't have to do anything else. So basically, you "set it and forget it." You don't have to worry about funding your retirement anymore since it is all done for you.

Sound familiar? That's the gist of it right? You get free money, tax savings, and it's shockingly easy. But step back, and I mean way back for a minute and look at this plan from a 5,000 foot view. Are these statements true and/or do they really make this plan favorable?

Get ready for some 401k information no one tells you.

  • Employer Match

    Let's say that your employer will match your contribution by 50%. Many argue that you get a 50% return on your money, but that is not the case. The employer match does not equal the rate of return.

    Here's an example taken from LEAP by Robert Castiglione. Let's say that you put in $1000 per year at 8% for 30 years, totaling $122,345. If you're employer matches 50% of your contribution, that would be $1500 per year at 8% for 30 years, totaling $183,518.

    In the end, with the employer match, you do have 50% more but that doesn't equate to a 50% rate of return on your money. To determine that figure, you must see what kind of rate of return you would need to get to $183,518 contributing $1000 per year for 30 years.

    Contribution per YearYearsRate of ReturnFuture Value
    $1000308%$122,345
    $1500308%$183,518
    $1000309.47%$183,518


    In the example above, with your employer match, you only receive an additional 1.47 % annually over 30 yrs, not a 50% rate of return.

  • Tax Savings

    This statement is actually false and probably the biggest misconception. The correct term to describe this "feature" is tax deferral. Meaning, you are putting off paying taxes on the money you paid into the plan. There are no tax savings. Let me repeat...

    There are no tax savings.

    What you are essentially doing is delaying the inevitable...paying taxes. Can you remember the last time procrastination was a good thing?

  • Future Lower Tax Bracket

    This argument is something I just don't get. I admit, I bit when it was presented to me as an advantage. But it just doesn't make sense.

    The goal here is to make you more money, right? Well, if you are in a lower tax bracket in the future, then didn't the plan fail? The plan is providing you less money in your golden years when your intention was to have more.

    Let me ask you a question. Would you rather pay $1,000 in taxes or $100,000? If you said $1000, why? I would love to pay $100,000 because that means I made so much more money than in the scenario where I only pay $1000.

    Are you investing to win or to not lose?

  • Easy

    Yes, it's easy...painfully easy. Remember, it takes virtually no effort to put your money in, but no one considers the repercussions of needing, or taking out the funds prematurely. It's like those old piggy banks. It's easy to get the money into it but then you have to break it with a hammer to access the cash.

    What worries me here is that people typically turn their brains off when they get into this plan. They have no idea what their money is invested in and don't have an exit strategy.

Our 401k Advice

If it's not obvious, this retirement plan is not a place where we want our money. I withdrew the entire funds from my 401k retirement plan from my previous employer (as well as my wife's IRA with her previous employer). We could put those funds to better use rather than locking it up. To us, leaving the money in there was too risky. I bet that's the first time you heard a statement like that to describe a 401k retirement plan.

A major risk I see with this plan is its lack of liquidity. Have you ever asked yourself, "How could I access the cash before retirement? What are the terms and conditions?"

Sure I have the ability to take out 401k loans, but that is a bad financial move.

When I was presented with 401k retirement plans, I was preached about how easy it was to put your money in it. But no one talked about how to get the money out, especially before retirement. Do you know how?

I took a 401k withdrawal. That's how I got it out.

I know there are some of you out there gasping, "But it's for your retirement! You shouldn't touch that money!" Would you rather use those funds than pay 20% and higher on a credit card? Would you want to pass up a great investment opportunity that could make you more money than this qualified retirement plan?

I hope you start asking questions and do some research. What are the disadvantages? Is it really where you want your money invested? Educate yourself on Uncle Sam's terms and conditions, rules and regulations, and the tax implications that surround this product.

If you don't, he may take you to the dry cleaners.

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