Skip to main content
No. of Recommendations: 0
Tiddman writes in part:

Actually I strongly disagree with TMFPixy. The 401(k) program is a great way to set aside money without taxes. The max 401(k) contribution this year is $10,000 whereas the max IRA contribution is $2,000. Deducting it right from your paycheck before you even see the money is a great way to save.

These days there aren't a lot of tax breaks available, and setting aside $10K per year (more in the future) and allowing that money to grow without taxes is something that you can't turn down. As you begin to earn more money and get to higher tax brackets, this becomes more and more important. I am going to pay as much in taxes this year as my gross salary my first year out of college :-).

Don't get blinded by the tax deferral. Not only can you turn down the 401k, you should turn it down when better taxable alternatives are available. If you have the same dedication to an after-tax program as that enforced by a 401k (i.e., automatic contributions that increase at the same time and same rate as your pay), then only an idiot would remain in a 401k that would result in far less money in retirement after taxes than could be had in a taxable investment. To see what I'm talking about, see Step 4 of my 13 Steps to Foolish Retirement Planning available at: .

However consider what is happening. You're charged a 3.5% fee *once* when you get into the fund, but the money is likely to stay there for many years -- if you're 30 years old now, it may be there for 40 years. During those 40 years, it will grow without any taxes at all. Over time that 3.5% that you paid at the beginning is going to be less and less significant.

That's pure poppyrot! That load will be charged on every deposit and on all reinvested earnings, which means that 8% return has an effective rate of about 7.22%. That means $100 per month invested for 30 years (or 360 months) would grow to $128,194. The same $100 invested with no load at 8% becomes $150,030, or some 14.6% more. Somehow, I don't find that "less and less significant. And the larger the contribution, the greater the difference. "Less and less significant" indeed!

Consider what you'd be up against if you invested the money after taxes. First you'd have to pay 28-35% income tax on the money before investing it, which may make all the rest of your taxes more expensive since your AGI will be higher. Then each year you would add to your AGI through dividends and distributions. Then you'll be hit with taxes *again* for capital gains when you want to cash out of your investments. Your investments would have to return at least 28-35% more *per year* to offset the tax benefits you would be getting with a 401(k). Here you're on the wrong side of the compounding equation.

Not necessarily provided you pay attention to the impact of taxes. That's precisely what the formula in Step 4 is designed to do. It's not hard to offset the tax deferral with a 7.22% effective return. For someone in a 28% marginal bracket, an investment earning better than 10.02% will do the trick. And that assumes capital gains will be taxed at 28%, which they won't be.

In short, if you put the money into a decent mutual fund (most of them offer an index fund these days) in the 401(k) program and forget about it, the 3.5% front load will diminish over time.

I don't know where you get your info, but the Department of Labor, the Employee Benefits Research Institute and many others report that over half of the 401k plans available do not offer an index fund. If they did, we wouldn't have this discussion so often.

Also note that if you leave your company, you can take your money out of that 401(k) program and, without penalty, roll it over to a self-directed IRA which you can invest as you choose. I did this a couple of years ago, I combined the 401(k) accounts from three previous jobs and put it into a self-directed IRA brokerage account which I invested in good long-term stocks (FNM and BRKB). A few weeks ago I converted that to a Roth IRA. This account is sizable because I was contributing up to around $8,500-9,500 for those years rather than $2,000 per year for an IRA. I got hit with various fees along the way, but I'm still way ahead of the game. And I'm sitting on some pretty huge capital gains in my investments, of which Uncle Sam won't see a dime :-).

Very true, and it worked fine with you. But I'll still repeat: Sometimes investing in a 401k simply does not make sense despite the tax break. You've got to run the numbers to be sure, but the Foolish approach may very well be the taxable alternative plus a Roth IRA.

Disagree with me if you must…..Just don't let taxes rule what you do so that you become blinded about what may be best for you. Sometimes it's not all that apparent.


Print the post  


The Retirement Investing Board
This is the board for all discussions related to Investing for and during retirement. To keep the board relevant and Foolish to everyone, please avoid making any posts pertaining to political partisanship. Fool on and Retire on!
What was Your Dumbest Investment?
Share it with us -- and learn from others' stories of flubs.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.