Personal Finance

Those index funds in your 401(k) could cost you

Key Points
  • While index funds have a reputation for being low-cost, you still want to evaluate what your 401(k) plan is charging you for them.
  • It may be cheaper to invest in certain funds on your own, depending on the expenses associated with your retirement plan.
Index funds: Buyer beware
Index funds: Buyer beware

Index funds have a reputation for the low costs associated with them.

But buyer beware: Your 401(k) plan provider could be marking them up to make them cost more than you think, according to Josh Robbins, chief strategy officer at America's Best 401k.

One sure-fire way to tell if your provider has raised the prices is to look at the fee disclosure and compare it to what you would pay if you bought the fund directly from the manager, Robbins said.

"Take a look and say, 'Are you getting a fair price?'" Robbins said. "And oftentimes you'll find there's additional layers, broker compensation and other commissions. They're really eroding your returns."

You can get more information on your retirement plan by requesting a 404(a)-5 disclosure, which outlines the plan's fees and expenses, suggested David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar.

While large retirement plans and certain index funds have a reputation for being less expensive, that isn't always the case because of the costs associated with administering the plans, Blanchett said.

"Every plan is different. Just because your plan offers Vanguard investments doesn't mean it's a low-cost plan," Blanchett said. "The key really is understanding for each plan what the costs are."

Phil Ashley | Stone | Getty Images

Steps to take

If you find that you are in a high-cost 401(k) plan, there are several steps you can take, according to Robbins.

First, ask your employer's management to benchmark the plan and change the investments.

If that doesn't work, you should continue to contribute to the plan up to your employer match, if there is one.

"If there's a match in the plan, we often encourage you to contribute because it's really free money," Robbins said.

But keep an eye on what staying in the plan will cost you.

"Sometimes plans are so egregious, where fees are north of two and a half, three and a half percent, where it might make sense to simply bypass the 401(k) and if possible set up your own individual retirement account at a low-cost provider," Robbins said.

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