Retirement Gamble: Wake-Up Call on 401(k) Fees

Frontline screenshot

Worried about how you're going to pay for retirement? Join the club. A PBS Frontline documentary called The Retirement Gamble shows that you're in good company. The silver lining: a brighter spotlight on hidden fees, plus information to help make the most of whatever you can sock away.

Kudos to journalist Martin Smith, who 'fessed up to the common mistake of saving for his kids' education at the expense of his own retirement security (more on why it's okay - and necessary - to put your retirement first). Life events like a divorce didn't help his retirement bottom line. Like many others, he'll likely be working until his mid-70s. But at least he'll be doing it on his own terms as a small business owner.

Other brave people in the documentary put a human side on the realities of the stock market bubble, being younger and afraid of what the future holds, and being older, out of work, and under water on your home. What will likely hit home for many: how long-term unemployment can drain your retirement nest egg when you have no other way to pay for the roof over your head and your other bills.

If you watched "Gamble" and you're not that familiar with how fees play into the retirement planning industry, it was likely an eye-opener. In fact, seven out of 10 people don't know that they pay 401(k) fees according to this study conducted for AARP. Instead of a retirement security system, finance journalist Helaine Olen calls the patchwork of what Americans are dealing with "a retirement mess."

Here are some key takeaways from the documentary, and some information to help - whether you're mid-30s to mid-50s or beyond.

  • Fees matter to 401(k)s and IRAs, and could erode your retirement savings by as much as 30% over time. You may be paying as much as 10 times more than your neighbor or spouse. Grab your statement and try AARP's 401(k) fees calculator (available to all regardless of age).
  • Retirement jargon can be overwhelming - but it doesn't have to be. This online glossary from makes it easy to look up key terms.
  • If you have a financial advisor, ask how they are compensated (and make sure elderly relatives do the same). Financial designations are confusing, and more than 85% of financial advisors have a vested interest in pushing certain products. Fee-only planners work for you, and it's important to know what to ask.
  • Index funds are your friends. Also known as exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, this form of fund is available in many 401(k) offerings. They tend to have much lower expenses than actively managed mutual funds, and better performance over time is a win-win for your retirement bottom line.
  • Social Security remains a vital safety net for all generations. You've paid into it for decades, and odds are you're going to need more than your own IRA or 401(k) to get by. About one-third of current retirees live on a Social Security benefit of around $1,236 per month (and didn't have self-funded investment options in their early work years). Long-term solvency will take some fine-tuning, but Social Security will be there for our children and grandchildren.


Worried that you're past 50 without enough saved and you'll never catch up? Take a deep breath and get some wisdom and action-oriented advice via Barbara Friedberg's article.

Above all, be glad that Americans are finally talking about the importance of saving for the future and what can get in the way - and that more employers are getting clued in to the value of older workers. Cheers to raising awareness, and to greater retirement security for all.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments. If you're on Twitter follow @AARPMoney and join the conversation there, too.


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