Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images
By Donna Rosato
August 21, 2014

When it comes to retirement saving, Americans still have their priorities skewed. That’s the conclusion of a new Charles Schwab survey, which found that workers spend more time investigating options for buying a new car or planning a vacation than researching the investment choices in their retirement plan. Cars and vacations got two hours of effort compared with one hour for 401(k)s.

It’s not that workers don’t value their retirement plans. Nearly 90% of workers say that a 401(k) is the most important option an employer can offer, the survey finds. But for most workers, appreciation of the plan isn’t translating into doing the best job possible of managing it. “It’s just human nature. We tend to gravitate to things we are comfortable with and avoid the things that we are not,” says Steve Anderson, president of Schwab Retirement Plan Services.

Part of the problem may be lack of financial knowledge. Workers surveyed by Schwab say they’d feel more confident about the ability to make a good financial decision if they had some professional guidance. Yet few people seek out help. Fewer than 25% participants who have access to professional advice have used it, according to the survey. By contrast, 87% of workers said they would hire a professional to change the oil in their car and 36% rely on one to do their taxes.

Of course, outsourcing your taxes and car maintenance isn’t the same as finding good investment help. But it’s not that the advice isn’t there. Three-quarters of 401(k) plans offer some type of help, ranging from from target-date funds to online tools to professionally managed accounts. Anderson said one reason people may not seek out help is that they don’t know it’s available. “Advice is available but it’s not promoted,” he says.

Taking advantage of this guidance can pay off, especially when it comes to reducing risk.

According to a study released by Financial Engines earlier this year, people who got professional investment help through managed accounts, target-date funds or online tools earned higher median annual returns than those who go it alone. It found that on average, employees getting advice had median annual returns that were 3.32 percentage points higher, net of fees, than workers managing their own retirement accounts.

Meanwhile, Schwab also found that people who used third-party professional advisors and had one-on-one counseling tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions despite market ups and downs.

If you are looking for plan guidance, though, make sure you understand the fees for this advice. A recent study by the GAO found that managed accounts, which let you turn over portfolio decisions to a pro, may be costly—management fees ranged from .08% to as high as 1%, on top of investing expenses. Ideally, you should pay 0.3% or less. High fees could wipe out the advantage of professional guidance. Other research has found that you may get similar benefits—generally at a much lower cost—by opting for a target-date fund.

In the long run, stepping up your saving and keeping fees low will make a bigger difference to your financial security than the investments you select. Still, making the right choices in your 401(k), as well as understanding what you need to do to reach your goals, is important. If professional advice will help you avoid making mistakes, it may be worth seeking out.

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