As you probably know, I’m a big believer in the humble 401(k) plan. Even though it’s a very basic tax shelter widely available to regular middle-class Americans, I challenge you to find something better. I’ve spent my entire professional career looking, and I have yet to find one.
If you religiously max out your 401(k) plan every year (currently $19,000 per year or $25,000 for those 50 or older), it will likely grow to become your single largest financial asset.
There’s just one big, glaring problem with the 401(k): The investment options are often terrible.
Cruddy Investment Options
Most plans are limited to a menu of mediocre mutual funds that move the same direction as the market. They’re fantastic when the stock market is moving higher but a financial death sentence during a bear market. The gallows humor following the 2008 bear market was that “My 401(k) just became a 201(k).” That joke will be making the rounds again after the next bear market.
And these days, hiding in bonds won’t do much for you. With yields now hitting new all-time lows almost daily, a portfolio invested in bond funds is essentially dead money.
Some 401(k) plans have a brokerage window that allows you to buy individual stocks. That’s a nice feature if your plan offers it, but it’s not available on most plans.
No matter how cruddy the investment options are in your 401(k), taking the funds out really isn’t an option. If you’re under 59 ½, you’d have to pay a 10% penalty, and at any age you’d have to pay taxes on whatever you pull out.
An Alternative to a 401(k)
Well, I have good news for you. If you hate your 401(k) investment options, you might be able to bail on them without triggering a tax nightmare. It can be possible to roll over your 401(k) balance into an IRA while you’re still working.
As you probably know, you can always roll over your 401(k) into an IRA whenever you switch jobs or retire. But if you’re 59 ½ or older, you can legally do the same thing without having to quit your job. This is what’s called an “in-service rollover.”
Your plan might or might not offer this. It really just depends on your employer. But if your company plan does offer it, an in-service rollover might be exactly what you need.