How Does Your 401(k)’s Investment Mix Stack Up?

When offered by employers, workplace 401(k)s make investing for retirement easy. Workers can contribute with money taken directly from paychecks and won’t be taxed on those contributions. In many cases, when employees contribute, employers even provide free money in the form of an employer match to help save for retirement.

However, there is one downside to a 401(k) compared with other retirement accounts such as an IRA that you’d open with a broker of your choosing. Workplace 401(k) accounts offer a limited number of investments to plan participants, and those investment options are chosen by the 401(k) administrator.

If you’re putting money into your 401(k), it’s worth considering how your investment choices stack up to the typical retirement account — and whether this should impact your decision about how much to invest.

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Here’s how many investments the typical 401(k) offers

According to Fidelity, the average number of 401(k) investment options that large employers offer is 15.4 different investment choices.

For most people, these investment options include a mix of different funds that track the performance of different market sectors. For example, a 401(k) may offer large-cap, mid-cap, and small-cap funds that give you exposure to large, mid-sized, and small companies. Or it may offer a fund that gives you exposure to the U.S. market as a whole, to emerging markets, or to bonds or real estate.

Many 401(k)s also offer target date funds. Target date funds aim to simplify the investing process by automatically investing your money in an appropriate mix of different kinds of assets depending on your investing timeline and your risk tolerance.

What should you do if you aren’t happy with your investment selection?

If after checking with your employer to see what investments your 401(k) offers, you find that you have access to fewer investments than the average, there’s a chance you may be unhappy with the investment selection. And, in some cases, even if your plan offers the typical 15.4 investments — or more — you may still be dissatisfied.

You may not like your 401(k)’s investment mix if all of the investments on offer charge high fees (which is common with target date funds). Or you may prefer to pick individual stocks — which 401(k) accounts typically don’t allow you to do — rather than just being restricted to investing in funds.

If you are dissatisfied with the investment choices your employer’s 401(k) offers you, the best thing to do in most situations is to make a sufficient amount of contributions to earn any matching funds your employer provides but not to contribute any more than necessary to earn the full amount of free money on offer.

After you’ve maxed out your employer matching contribution, you can direct the rest of your retirement savings into a traditional or Roth IRA that you open with a broker of your choosing. This way, you can invest in almost anything you’d like, including shares of individual companies. Of course, you do need to make sure your earnings fall within IRA income limits, and be aware the contribution limits are lower so you may not be able to invest all you want in these accounts.

If your income is too high, using a 401(k) may be your only option for tax-advantaged savings. And if you can’t contribute enough, then first max out your employer match, then your IRA, then put any extra contributions back into the 401(k) after you’ve hit the IRA limit.

By researching your investment options carefully, understanding how your 401(k) stacks up, and making an informed choice about what accounts to invest in, you can maximize the chances of ending up with the nest egg you need in your later years.

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