Q&A: Fees can do serious damage to your retirement

Dear Liz: When I changed jobs, I rolled my 401(k) account into an IRA and took it to a financial planner. He invested it initially and now has a management company watching it. So now I am paying quarterly fees to him, the management company and the IRA custodian. The fees average about $2,000 a year. I am thinking about moving my account to my current 401(k), which has lower fees.

I feel like the planner has me in way too many investments, and my returns aren’t great. My account is up about $40,000 on a $122,000 initial investment. I will be 60 this year and plan on working for another six-plus years.

Answer: If your employer accepts IRA transfers — and many do — then rolling the money into your current 401(k) could be a great way to go.

Many 401(k) plans offer ultra-low-cost investment options that aren’t available to retail investors. Many also offer target date funds that would take care of diversifying your investments while making sure the mix gets more conservative as you get closer to retirement.

Right now you’re paying above-average fees to get below-average performance. If you had put your money into a low-cost option such as the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund five years ago, your account would now be worth nearly $190,000. The expense ratio for the balanced fund can be as low as 0.08%, compared with the 1.23% you’re paying now. (Your actual cost probably is higher; you didn’t include the expense ratios of the underlying investments in your account.)

Fees matter a lot. Higher fees depress returns and can increase your chance of running short of money in retirement.

At the same time, the years just before and after retirement are crucial because you’ll be making a lot of decisions with major consequences (such as when to claim Social Security and how much to withdraw from retirement accounts). Paying 1% in fees could make sense if you were getting comprehensive financial planning advice that addressed your retirement planning needs as well as other aspects of your finances, such as insurance, taxes and estate planning. If all you’re paying for is investment management, though, you can get that for a lot less.

If your employer doesn’t accept transfers or doesn’t have low-cost options, you could consider transferring your IRA to a custodian that offers low-cost computerized investment services. These include Betterment, Wealthfront, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, among others. The all-in fee for their services, including expense ratios of underlying investments, is typically less than 0.5%.

If you do opt for less expensive investment management, you still should consider hiring a fee-only financial planner before you retire to review your plan. You can find fee-only planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network.

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