What to Do When Your Boss Stiffs Your 401(k)

Employee - manager 401K
Wondering why you haven't seen the performance you've hoped for from your 401(k) lately? A big reason may be that your employer is simply not putting what it used to into the account.

One of the best perks of 401(k) plans is the matching contribution that employers traditionally make when workers save money in the retirement accounts. Yet these days, fewer companies are making 401(k) matches: The number of companies offering matching has fallen by almost 7 percent since 2009, according to a study from American Investment Planners.

In other words, more employers are backing even further away from carrying their share of the retirement-savings burden.

Retirement Under Siege

The trend of cutting back matching is just one way employers are taking the scalpel to their benefits budgets.

The AIP study found that 6 percent of 401(k) plans have been terminated outright since 2009. In addition, traditional pension plans that promise fixed monthly benefits for life have seen steeper declines, with a drop of 15 percent in the number of such plans in 2011 alone.

Compared to losing your plan entirely, missing out an employer match may not sound like that big a deal. But over time, the hit to your retirement savings from not having a match really adds up.

Assuming you make $50,000 a year and are able to set aside $5,000 each year, even a modest match of 3 percent of your salary can add more than $180,000 extra to your retirement account balance over the course of your career.
Years of Saving $5,000 In 401(k) Ending Balance If No Match Ending Balance With Match
10 $78,227 $101,456
20 $247,115 $320,731
30 $611,729 $794,130
Source: Author calculations. Assumes annual investment returns of 8 percent.

Obviously, nobody makes the same salary for their whole career, and investing returns aren't constant either. But as a simple illustration, it makes a telling point. The $182,401 difference in this example adds up to more than three-and-a-half years' worth of salary after 30 years -- and that extra money (if you have it) keeps earning returns when you're retired. With bigger matches, the impact can be even greater.

Should You Give Up On Your 401(k)?

Having your employer abdicate responsibility for helping you prepare for retirement could seem like the last straw. After all, 401(k) plans already have plenty of other shortcomings.

Companies have been passing on administrative costs to workers in the form of higher fees, in some cases charging fixed amounts that represent a very high percentage of your savings in your 401(k) account. Workers with low 401(k) balances who switch jobs often get kicked out of their plans entirely by their ex-employers. And the average two-income family will pay $155,000 in 401(k) fees to plan administrators over the course of their lives.

Even with those negatives, however, 401(k) plans represent one of your best tools for setting aside pre-tax money toward your retirement. With limits of $17,500 this year -- or $23,000 if you're 50 or older -- it's worth putting up with some downsides in order to reap those thousands of dollars in tax breaks.

How to Handle a Stingy Boss

If your boss stops matching your 401(k) contribution, take a look at other options. You may be better off going with an IRA, which allows you to go beyond the limited investment menu your 401(k) offers and instead choose nearly any investment you want. IRAs offer many of the same tax benefits as 401(k)s, and their added flexibility makes them less prone to high fees.

Moreover, even a regular investment account can work well if you use it the right way. With favorable tax rates for dividends and long-term capital gains, investors who follow a buy-and-hold strategy fare the best in keeping their tax bills low.

Still, if you really want to save as much as you possibly can toward retirement, continue to contribute to your 401(k) -- but keep your eyes open for hidden costs that can sap your overall returns. You can minimize the impact of high fees by sticking with low-cost index funds or similar investments within your plan.

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Yes, 401(k) fees can be horribly high. No, a 401(k) without a match isn't as good a deal as one with a match, and matches are usually pretty paltry at the best of times. Still, if there is even a small match, that's free money as long as you stay with the company long enough to vest. And if it wasn't for 401(k) plans or similar plans (403(b) and 457 plans), I probably wouldn't have nearly as much saved for retirement as I do. Even in the depths of the recession, when even my retirement savings took a considerable hit, I would look at the balances and think: "At least I have that much, and that's more than I would have had if I'd spent it on shoes, lattes and other consumer goods." Even at the worst point, it was $200,000 more than I would have had, because I make a practice of contributing as much as the law allows.

June 21 2013 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Some companies have opted out of paying a match to 401K's but most have given notice. Many have said that the Obamacare bill will drain them. I saved 10% of what I made in addition to the retirement contributions I made. Most of my career I did not have an employer match, I had straight retirement plans to which I was the major contributor. It can be done. I lived well then and am doing fine now.

May 04 2013 at 8:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And when you catch them they claim it was an honest mistake. I am waiting for the day they honestly make a mistake of overpaying you. NEVER!

May 04 2013 at 1:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

gubmint's been eying those accts and trying to figure out a way to REALLY SCREW the owners.

May 04 2013 at 12:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What to do when your boss stiffs your 401K? Turn your boss into a STIFF, that's what.

May 04 2013 at 12:19 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

We had 25% match, on and off, for many years. 5 years ago went to zero and probably will never come back. So I quit adding new $$ to back then. But 13 years ago I also realized I need something better, so I started buying student rentals at a world known University. In 13 years, I have been able to build it up to the point of it making $120K/year positive cash flow and growing., enough to retire on. Not to mention the houses are also getting paid off by the tenants, they have better tax advantages, and are inflation protected. Best move I ever made. You can no longer expect the gov and/or your employer to look out for you. You have to take control of you own future.

May 03 2013 at 9:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vlady1000's comment

damn good thinking-

May 04 2013 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


May 03 2013 at 5:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"What to do when the boss stiffs you"?
Do all you can do, whine and grovel.
It's what this country has become.
We elect politicians that laugh at what we want, and protect those rich folks that screw you.
Vote the crooks out, get revenge.

May 03 2013 at 2:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sounds like IBM. Starting in 2013 they are providing their employee match at the end of the year. That is fine and dandy, but IBM has a reputation of conducting "resource actions" (layoffs) throughout the year which makes it a little difficult to make it the full 12 months. So, not only are they saving the interest that the employee would normally receive they also get to bank on the employee leaving by choice or not by choice at some point throughout the year. If you think there is no need for unions think of companys like IBM.

May 03 2013 at 10:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hi Gram, Ty&Dill

My hubby's employer stoops to a whole new low. They aren't sending in the money that my hubby pays into his 401k. They sit on it for months so they profit off of it. They haven't contributed in years. Karma does exist, both bosses are having health issues, one had em. surgery earlier this week, intestines ruptured. Hope he has to crap in a bag for the rest of his life.

May 03 2013 at 3:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Hi Gram, Ty&Dill's comment

If this is his money contributed, and they don't put it in the 401k plan, they are stealing. Our plan stipulates the money MUST be put into the 401k within 5 days of the payroll date from which the funds are removed or the employer is out of compliance with the rules of the 401k plan. Also, if they no longer match, they must do so in writing to the plan contributors ALL of them. I would contact the plan representative, this info should be on your quarterly report.

May 03 2013 at 1:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply