[Editor’s Note: Thanks to reader feedback, this article has been amended to account for matching contributions or the possibility of lower fees in the future because of a job switch or an employer’s policy change. – WSP]
Everyone knows the benefits of investing in a 401(k). You get that upfront tax deduction and tax-deferred growth on your investments. However, unlike in regular taxable accounts, you don’t get much flexibility in your investment options. Some employees, unfortunately, get stuck with a bad 401(k) with high fees. In this case, could it actually be better to not invest in the bad 401(k) and save the money in a taxable account?
Pros of Investing in a Bad 401(k) with High Fees
You get an upfront tax deduction
In a traditional 401(k), your retirement account contributions are not taxed. For physicians and other high-income professionals, that could potentially be a 35% tax break or more.
Your money grows tax-deferred
You can change your 401(k) investments as much as you please without any tax consequences. In a taxable account, every time you sell or change your investments, there are potential tax consequences. You have to choose your taxable account investments carefully, because it can be expensive to change them. You do not have to worry about this in a 401(k).
Cons of Investing in a Bad 401(k) with High Fees
You may withdraw your capital gains from the 401(k) at a higher tax rate than the long-term capital gains rate in a taxable account
For most people, the long-term capital gains rate in retirement is currently 15%. For people in the 10% or 15% income tax brackets, the long-term capital gains rate is actually 0%, leading some people to take the strategy of tax-gain harvesting.
In a 401(k), your withdrawals are taxed at your ordinary income tax bracket, regardless of whether the money is your initial contribution or investment gains. In many cases, your 401(k) withdrawals are taxed at a higher rate than the long-term capital gains rate you would have paid in a taxable account.
Your investment returns are significantly lower because of its higher fees
With bad 401(k)s, your investment returns are significantly eroded, and that can severely hurt your 401(k) value at retirement.
You cannot withdraw the money early without paying a penalty
There is less flexibility with your money in a 401(k). In general, if you make a non-qualified withdrawal before the age of 59 1/2, you have to pay a 10% penalty tax. With a taxable account, you can withdraw the money at any time without an additional tax penalty.
At What Point Do The High Costs Of A Bad 401(k) Outweigh Its Benefits?
Consider a 30-year old employee who contributes the maximum $18,000 to her 401(k):
- Tax bracket at contribution – 35%
- Tax bracket at retirement – 15%
- Long-term capital gains tax rate – 15%
- Investment returns – 5% real (after-inflation) returns
- Time horizon – 35 years (retire at age 65)
- Trading frequency: never – in a taxable account, she would invest in a low-cost index fund and never sell until retirement
- Withdrawal strategy: for simplicity, she will withdraw her money at age 65 and pay either ordinary income taxes in a 401(k) or long-term capital gains in a taxable account
When you have a good 401(k) where the fees are equal to that of a taxable account, the 401(k) is vastly superior. However, as the 401(k) fees rise, the benefits of a 401(k) decline, and when the fees of 401(k) hit 1.2%, the 401(k) and taxable accounts have equal values at retirement. If the 401(k) fees rise above 1%, then the value of the 401(k) becomes less than the value of a taxable account.
This chart is based on several assumptions, including your age, tax brackets, and investment returns. If you switch jobs, you can rollover your 401(k) to your new job, whose 401(k) may have lower fees. Your current 401(k) may also lower their fees during your career. The results may vary depending on your specific situation.
For example, as you get older, the effect of higher 401(k) fees go down, because you are investing (and paying the higher fees) for fewer years. Using all of the other base case assumptions, I’ve graphed the break-even fee difference between the 401(k) and taxable account for different ages.
If you are in a high 401(k) plan with your current employer, you should immediately rollover your 401(k) to your new employer’s 401(k) if you switch jobs.
In medicine, you never know when (if ever) you will switch jobs, but the possibility of changing jobs in the future may effect your decision to invest in a bad 401(k) today.
Also, even if you are in a bad 401(k) today, that doesn’t mean that it will be a bad 401(k) forever. Your HR department (with or without the prodding of its employees) may make changes to their 401(k) over time to significantly lower the company’s 401(k) fee structure. In this case, it might be worth it to invest in a bad 401(k) today with the hope that it gets better over time.
Let’s examine the impact of investing in a 401(k) at age 30 with the base case assumptions above, except that you are able to switch jobs or lobby your current employer to lower their 401(k) fees down to the fees of a taxable account. Depending on your age when that happens, it could be beneficial to invest in a bad 401(k) today:
It almost always makes sense to contribute to the 401(k) when your employer will match your contribution:
For most physicians and other high-income professionals, you should invest in a 401(k) even if it has high management fees. A possible exception might be if you are young, do not get an employer match, and anticipate never switching jobs. Even in this rare scenario, if you can lobby your HR department to lower fees, it makes sense to invest in a bad 401(k) today.
What do you think? Are you stuck with a bad 401(k)? Have you considered not investing in your 401(k) because of high fees? At what point is a bad 401(k) not worth it?