Q. I'm 33 years old and this is my first time doing a 401(k). I received my benefits package information but it might as well be in a foreign language. I see different kinds of stock funds to choose from. Each one has different companies. There are also graphs, not just one graph but two! I'm very confused about what will benefit me.
I am aware of the turmoil we are in financially. Is it still a good idea to have a 401(k), and if so, how do I choose from one fund or another?
I read your recent column about expense ratio - but what exactly does that percentage mean? Please explain like I'm 5 years old. Retirement plans like 401(k)s shouldn't be this difficult, but they are. Can you help me figure this out? ---S.B., by email from Los Angeles, CA
A. Don't feel bad--- just about everyone starts as a blank page. The important thing is that you make some effort not to remain a blank page.
The expense ratio is the cost of managing each fund expressed as a percentage of the assets in the fund. If it costs $10 a year for every $1,000 of fund assets, then the expense ratio is 1 percent a year. The higher the expense ratio, the slower the growth of your retirement savings in that fund. This happens because the fund manager is getting a greater portion of the return on your savings.
Over a long time period--- like your working career--- high fees will dramatically reduce the amount of money you might have accumulated for retirement. It may seem tiny when expressed as a percent of assets, but over a 40-year working career, it will amount to years of needed retirement income.
In my columns I emphasize the destructive power of expenses for a simple reason. Expenses are constant and inescapable. Performance is temporary and uncertain.
Rather than trying to make a "good call" on what you invest in, I suggest starting with a diversified fund. That's a fund that some will call "balanced." Others, such as Morningstar, will call it a "moderate allocation" or "world allocation" fund. Such funds will contain a mixture of stocks and bonds. The world allocation funds will contain foreign as well as domestic stocks.
Another option--- now available in virtually all 401(k) plans--- is a "life cycle" fund pegged to a year close to your expected retirement. This will start with relatively more equities than it will have later, as it approaches your retirement year. These funds aren't perfect, but they do make it easier to make a choice. They may not put you on exactly the right path, but they will definitely start you in the right direction.
The most important thing for you to remember is this: Before you can have a return on your savings, you have to have savings.
Q. I read a recent column about paying your mortgage off early and have a follow-up question. I’m 60 years old and have a first mortgage of $94,000 and a home equity line of credit of $80,000. My wife and I have lived in our house for over 35 years. It is worth about $400,000, and we have savings of $150,000. Should we use our savings to pay down both mortgages? ---A.T., by email from Denver, CO
A. The answer really depends on your present and future income security. For most people it isn’t wise to become debt-free by taking their savings down to $0. Also, with $174,000 in total home financing, your $150,000 in savings won't be enough to make you debt-free.
Currently, home equity lines of credit are about the cheapest money you can borrow, so there is little incentive to pay that money back out of savings. You might, however, benefit from paying off your first mortgage. You'd get a higher effective return than you can earn on your savings. Also, eliminating the monthly mortgage payment may free up income you can commit to a tax-deferred retirement plan, such as an IRA or 401(k).