The good and the bad in this easy one-stop-shopping retirement fund

  • Target-date funds, an all-in-one investment, are pretty good. They’re also not as good as they could be, say some experts.
  • The simplicity is attractive to many, but higher fees and lower returns should be considered when deciding where to invest your retirement savings.
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You're saving for retirement, and the first thing you see is a list of fund names.

Some people freeze and put off choosing. Others look for a simple approach.

If you are in a workplace retirement plan, you may be automatically placed into an investment known as a target-date fund. You can usually recognize these because the fund names all end in a year that's supposed to correspond with your retirement age.

"Target-date funds tend to be very attractive to investors who don't want to consistently manage their investments," said J. Kevin Stophel, a certified financial planner at the advisory firm Kumquat. "But consumers [generally] do too little homework when selecting a particular fund."

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Instead of picking a bunch of funds and trying to balance between stocks, bonds, international and domestic, a target-date fund is more like one-stop shopping.

You invest in it fully, without having to think about your asset allocation. They're attractive to investors who don't want to have to pay too much attention to managing their investments.

These funds are created to automatically rebalance to an investment allocation that grows more conservative as one gets closer to retirement or the target date, Stophel says.

The asset allocation generally starts out more aggressive, since the investor has several decades until retirement and can ride out some bumps in the market. The nearer to retirement, the more conservative the mix of investments.

Even though target-date funds are advertised as a hands-off investment for people who don't want to fuss, it's still important to research the investment company and the expense ratios. You'll want to know how much you are paying for convenience. Another thing to look at: How the target-date fund is rebalanced through the years.

As an all-in-one investment, these funds are pretty good, says Nick Holeman, a CFP with Betterment for Business, the robo-advisor. "They're also not as good as they could be," Holeman said.

Holeman dislikes several aspects of target-date funds. There's too much time between fund dates to give a truly customized experience. A 26-year-old might be in a fund set for a 2055, but what if this employee hopes to retire several years earlier or later? They're also biased toward their own funds. If you're in a Fidelity target-date, you're investing only in Fidelity funds.

"They handle the investments, but retirement planning is so much more than just investments," Holeman said. "They won't tell you if you're saving enough or if the risk tolerance is right for you."

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"When you're younger, the default of a target-date fund might be all you need to get started," Holeman said.

But more mature investors might be interested in a little more detail, which would allow you to better match your risk tolerance.

These funds assume everyone has the same risk tolerance and life expectancy, says Holeman.

"But the risk tolerance in that fund might not match your own comfort level," Holeman said. "If it seems a little risky for you, you can choose [a different year].

"That shorter time horizon could mean a slightly less aggressive approach," he added.

You might want to do a little homework before accepting a target-date fund based on date alone. "Not every target-date fund is the same," Holeman said. Three funds with the same target date from different companies may look pretty similar, but their risk levels may vary.

What to know about fees

Keep in mind that target-date funds can have very different costs. Some funds have sales loads; some don't. "Other fees and expenses can be built into the fund," Stophel said.

To start with, one and sometimes two levels of management fees are embedded in the fund. "Many funds are a combination of other mutual funds packaged together and presented for purchase as a single investment," Stophel said.

If that's the case, each fund within the target-date fund will have a management fee. The manager of the target-date fund will also charge a fee.

Target-date funds may not meet everyone's investment needs. Depending on the glide path and allocation of the fund, you might need an investment that averages 8 percent annually to reach your retirement goal in 10 years.

But "such an investment may only be structured to generate an expected return of 5 percent, which is significantly lower than your target," Stophel said. "You will most likely be sorely disappointed."

Stophel's recommendation is not to let the ease of target-date funds replace common sense about investing. Don't use them without first understanding whether a specific fund has a realistic chance of getting you where you want to go.