How to set up a 401(k)

So you just got a new job, or maybe your first job ever, and one of the benefits is a 401(k) retirement plan. You’ve been trying to come up to speed, but now you’re being asked to make a bunch of complicated investment decisions that will have an impact at the end of your career—before it’s even begun. Here are 4 simple steps to get you started:

  1. Manage it yourself
    401(k) providers will offer to actively manage your investments, but they will charge you for the privilege—which eats into the growth of your nest egg. They may make it difficult and confusing to select DIY, but you should be able to find an inconspicuous “No thanks, I’ll do it myself” option when you first set up your 401(k).
  2. Contribute 10%
    If 10% of your gross salary ends up being too high (or too low), you should be able change it once a month. If your company offers to match your contribution (e.g. 50% of what you contribute, up to 6%), set your contribution to that level (e.g. 6%) at minimum.
  3. Choose a Traditional 401(k)
    This is only relevant if your company offers a Roth 401(k) to accept post-tax contributions. You want to make pre-tax contributions. This is also the most difficult piece of advice to grasp—it took me 12 years! To learn more, check out my post, The Roth Awakening.
  4. Invest 100% in a stock market index fund
    Pick an index fund with a low expense ratio that tracks the S&P 500 (or the total stock market). The expense ratio (often abbreviated exp. ratio) is a measure of how much the 401(k) provider will take to pay their management expenses. You might need to click through each fund in your plan to figure this out. With any luck, the ratio should be 0.1% or lower. Allocate 100% of your contribution to this fund.

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