To meet retirement goals as affordably as possible, 401(k) participants must do two basic things – save early and often and invest appropriately. To invest appropriately, participants must construct - and maintain – an investment portfolio that includes a diversified mix of investments based on their time horizon (time to retirement) and risk tolerance. An appropriate portfolio balances the participant’s growth potential with risk of losses. Striking this balance is important. Otherwise, a participant could miss out on returns by investing too conservatively when young or sustain unrecoverable losses by investing too aggressively when older.
Small business owners can have dramatically different goals for their 401(k) plan. While some want to maximize key employee contributions, others want to incentivize plan participation by all employees. Business owners have nearly endless options for meeting these goals – many with very different expenses. The process of matching 401(k) goals to available options is called 401(k) plan design.
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Safe harbor 401(k) plans are the most popular type of 401(k) used by small businesses today. Unlike a traditional 401(k) plan, they automatically pass the ADP/ACP and top heavy nondiscrimination tests when mandatory contribution and participant disclosure requirements are met. This trade-off is worth it for many business owners, who often bear the brunt of the consequences when their 401(k) plan fails testing. However, a safe harbor 401(k) plan is not the best fit for every small business. They can cost more than a traditional 401(k) plan, but offer less plan design flexibility – making it harder for some business owners to meet their plan priorities
A 401(k) plan may, but is not required to, allow participants to take a hardship distribution in times of financial stress. This type of 401(k) distribution can be a financial lifeline when someone has nowhere else to turn for cash. Last year, the IRS released a proposed regulation that made several changes to the 401(k) hardship rules, generally relaxing how and when these distributions may be taken. Both employers and 401(k) participants should understand how the regulation will affect their retirement plan.
One of my heroes – Jack Bogle, the founder of The Vanguard Group – died on January 16. I can’t think another person who has done more to help the average American save for retirement than Jack Bogle. Before he started an index fund revolution, it was difficult for investors with few assets to pay low fees for top mutual funds. Bogle democratized investing by making it easy for all investors – regardless of assets – to pay low fees for top funds. His guiding principle was simple: costs matter. Since fees reduce investment returns, they should be kept to a minimum.
Most of us know it is smart to save money for those big-ticket items we really want to buy - a new television or car or home. Yet you may not realize that probably the most expensive thing you will ever buy in your lifetime is retirement.