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Published: Oct 31, 2016 5 min read
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Saving for retirement shouldn’t be scary. A 401(k) offered through your employer makes saving for the future more convenient — but some plans have a dark side that can haunt you with monstrous fees.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Retirement Income Security Act requires employers to annually disclose fees and provide a quarterly statement of fees and expenses charged to 401(k) participants. Ask your human resources representative or the manager of your retirement account how the fees below are applied to your plan and who pays them.

Fearsome fees that drag down your 401(k)

  1. Investment fees. These costs fall into three categories:
  • Expense ratios are the annual fees tied to mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds. Your 401(k) will likely offer a small selection of these funds. When possible, pick funds with the lowest expense ratios. The expense ratio is charged as an annual percentage of your investment in the fund.
  • Sales loads are the charges or commissions paid to the salesperson or broker who sold the fund. Avoid these fees by choosing no-load funds.
  • Other fees include the costs of services, such as investment advice. This can be charged as a flat rate or as a percentage of the amount of assets.
  1. Individual service fees. These are fees you may have to pay to cover features you opt into, like taking a loan from the plan.
  1. Administrative fees. A 401(k) requires operational tasks, such as record keeping and legal services. Some employers pay the fees associated with these operations, while others pass them on to you.

Escaping the horror of costly fees

The fees associated with administrative tasks, along with investment expenses, average about 1% of assets managed, according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization. Consider a worker who makes about $30,500 at age 25 and plans to retire at 67. Say this employee saves 5% of his or her salary, and the employer matches 10% of the contribution amount. One percent in fees would add up to nearly $140,000 in that person’s lifetime, the study calculates.

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Some 401(k) plans charge a flat fee for administrative costs, while others set the cost as a percentage of your assets in the plan. In 2015, the median annual cost of administrative fees was $64 per participant, according to a survey by consulting firm NEPC LLC.

Say you’re on the hook for paying a lot of 401(k) fees. Or maybe your plan is pricey because its fees are high and available funds are expensive, which is often the case with small plans. It may be time to find an escape route.

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If your employer matches any part of your contributions, you should still contribute that amount — it’s basically free money. Then, contribute leftover savings to an individual retirement account. If your employer doesn’t offer a match or a 401(k), start with an IRA.

There are rarely fees associated with IRAs, unless you’re working with a financial advisor. Plus, compared with 401(k)s, they typically offer a larger pool of investments, including low-cost funds. You can contribute up to $5,500 (or $6,500 if you’re over 50) to an IRA in 2016. If you hit that maximum and still have dollars to invest, head back to your 401(k).

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When choosing between a traditional or Roth IRA, consider that the biggest difference between the two is how and when you get a tax break. If you choose a traditional IRA, taxes are due when you withdraw from it in retirement. A Roth IRA is the opposite. You contribute after-tax dollars, meaning your withdrawals later aren’t taxed. If you think your tax rate will be the same or higher than it is now when you reach retirement, a Roth IRA is likely the way to go.

Whichever IRA you choose, you have options to escape the ghastly fees of a 401(k).