Unfortunately for plan sponsors, 401(k) plan participants have some big misconceptions about their retirement plan.

Having worked as a 401(k) plan consultant for more than 30 years with some of the most prestigious companies in the world — including Apple, AT&T, IBM, John Deere, Northern Trust, Northwestern Mutual — I’m always surprised by the simple but significant 401(k) plan misconceptions many plan participants have. Following are the most common and noteworthy —all of which employers need to help employees address.

1. I only need to contribute up to the maximum company match

Many participants believe that their company is sending them a message on how much they should contribute. As a result, they only contribute up to the maximum matched contribution percentage. In most plans, that works out to be only 6% in employee contributions. Many studies have indicated that participants need to average at least 15% in contributions each year. To dispel this misperception, and motivate participants to contribute something closer to what they should, plan sponsors should consider stretching their matching contribution.

2. It’s OK to take a participant loan

I have had many participants tell me, “If this were a bad thing why would the company let me do it?” Account leakage via defaulted loans is one of the reasons why some participants never save enough for retirement. In addition, taking a participant loan is a horrible investment strategy. Plan participants should first explore taking a home equity loan, where the interest is tax deductible. Plan sponsors should consider curtailing or eliminating their loan provisions.

3. Rolling a 401(k) account into an IRA is a good idea

There are many investment advisers working hard to convince participants this is a good thing to do. However, higher fees, lack of free investment advice, use of higher-cost investment options, lack of availability of stable value and guaranteed fund investment options and many other factors make this a bad idea for most participants.

4. My 401(k) account is a good way to save for college, a first home, etc.

When 401(k) plans were first rolled out to employees decades ago, human resources staff helped persuade skeptical employees to contribute by saying the plans could be used for saving for many different things. They shouldn’t be. It is a bad idea to use a 401(k) plan to save for an initial down payment on a home or to finance a home. Similarly, a 401(k) plan is not the best place to save for a child’s education — 529 plans work much better. Try to eliminate the language in your communication materials that promotes your 401(k) plan as a place to do anything other than save for retirement.

5. I should stop making 401(k) contributions when the stock market crashes

This is a more prevalent feeling among plan participants than you might think. I have had many participants say to me, “Bob, why should I invest my money in the stock market when it is going down. I'm just going to lose money!” These are the same individuals who will be rushing into the stock market at market tops. This logic is important to unravel with participants and something plan sponsors should emphasize in their employee education sessions.

6. Actively trading my 401(k) account will help me maximize my account balance

Trying to time the market, or following newsletters or a trader's advice, is rarely a winning strategy. Consistently adhering to an asset allocation strategy that is appropriate to a participant's age and ability to bear risk is the best approach for most plan participants.

7. Indexing is always superior to active management

Although index investing ensures a low-cost portfolio, it doesn't guarantee superior performance or proper diversification. Access to commodity, real estate and international funds is often sacrificed by many pure indexing strategies. A blend of active and passive investments often proves to be the best investment strategy for plan participants.

8. Target date funds are not good investments

Most experts who say that target date funds are not good investments are not comparing them to a participant's allocations prior to investing in target date funds. Target date funds offer proper age-based diversification. Many participants, before investing in target date funds, may have invested in only one fund or a few funds that were inappropriate risk-wise for their age.

9. Money market funds are good investments

These funds have been guaranteed money losers for a number of years because they have not kept pace with inflation. Unless a participant is five years or less away from retirement or has difficulty taking on even a small amount of risk, these funds are below-average investments. As a result of the new money market fund rules, plan sponsors should offer guaranteed or stable value investment options instead.

10. I can contribute less because I will make my investments will work harder

Many participants have said to me, “Bob, I don’t have to contribute as much as others because I am going to make my investments do more of the work.” Most participants feel that the majority of their final account balance will come from earnings in their 401(k) account. However, studies have shown that the major determinant of how much participants end up with at retirement is the amount of contributions they make, not the amount of earnings. This is another misconception that plan sponsors should work hard to unwind in their employee education sessions.

Make sure you address all of these misconceptions in your next employee education sessions.

Robert C. Lawton, AIF, CRPS is president of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC, a RIA firm helping 401(k) plan sponsors with their investment, fiduciary, employee education and compliance responsibilities.

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Robert C. Lawton

Robert C. Lawton

Robert C. Lawton, AIF, CRPS is president of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC, an RIA firm helping retirement plan sponsors with their investment, fiduciary, employee education and compliance responsibilities.