401k Fees

Most Americans couldn’t tell you what their 401(k) fees are, or if they even have them. Thirty-seven percent believe their 401(k) has no fees at all, while another 36% either don’t know their fees or don’t know where to find them, according to a recent TD Ameritrade report.

The easy answer is that all 401(k) plans have fees. And there are two general categories: administrative (also known as “participation”) fees and investment fees.

Ninety-five percent of 401(k) plans charge administrative fees, and these cover the costs of things such as record keeping, legal services, customer support and transaction processing.

In addition, all 401(k) plans charge investment fees (or at least I’ve never heard of one that doesn’t). These are fees charged by the investment funds you choose and are typically listed as “expense ratios” in your plan’s literature.

These fees are expressed as a percentage of assets, and the average 401(k) costs 1% of assets every year for all fees. In other words, the average 401(k) participant will pay $1,000 for every $100,000 in plan assets.

However, this can vary tremendously. Generally speaking, large-scale 401(k) plans are cheaper, while small business 401(k) plans tend to have the highest fees. All fees are clearly disclosed in your plan’s literature, or you can ask your plan administrator for information on your fees.

A Quick Guide to Mutual Fund Expenses

You may be surprised at how expensive some mutual funds’ expenses and fees are over the long run.

Mutual funds can be great investing options for people who want the high-growth potential of the stock market, but don’t want to choose individual stocks to buy. However, the convenience of mutual funds isn’t free — there are several types of expenses investors may need to pay, and these fees can really eat away at your long-term performance.

The three main types of mutual fund expenses

When you invest in a mutual fund, there are three main expenses you may have to pay. Not all mutual funds have all three expenses, and you can find the details in a fund’s prospectus.

front-end sales charge, also called a sales load, refers to money you pay upfront when you invest in a mutual fund. This is a form of commission paid to financial planners, brokers, or investment advisors. If you limit your search to “no load” funds, you can avoid this expense altogether.

back-end sales charge, or back-end load, refers to money you pay when you sell, or redeem, your shares of a mutual fund. This expense can be a flat fee, or can gradually decrease over time to incentivize investors to hold their investments. Like front-end sales charges, these are commissions paid to third parties, and are not a part of the fund’s operating expenses.

An expense ratio is the fund’s annual operating expenses, expressed as a percentage of assets. Unlike the sales charges, this cost applies to all mutual funds. This covers management fees as well as other expenses of running the mutual fund. For example, a 1% expense ratio means that for every $1,000 you have invested, you’ll pay $10 in expenses per year.

You may see two expense ratios listed – gross and net. A fund’s gross expense ratio refers to the total annual operating expenses, while the net expense ratio may be reflective of a temporary discount, and may therefore be lower. Simply put, the net expense ratio is what the fund’s investors are paying now, while the gross expense ratio is what the fund’s expenses could be in the future. As a long-term investor, it’s a good idea to base your decisions off of the gross expense ratio – in other words, don’t assume that the lower net expense ratio will last forever.

You might be surprised at how much these expenses can really cost

As an example, let’s say that you have $10,000 to invest. The S&P 500 has historically averaged returns of about 9.5% per year, and $10,000 compounded at this rate for 30 years is $152,200.

Now, let’s say that you invest in a mutual fund that does just as well as the overall market. That is, the fund’s investments generate total returns of 9.5% per year on average. However, to invest in this particular fund, you’ll need to pay a 3% front-end sales charge, as well as a 1% expense ratio on an ongoing basis.

These may sound like small percentages, but these small fees result in a 30-year investment value of $109,200. In other words, the front-end sales charge and expense ratio reduced your investment gains by $43,000.

With that in mind, here’s a calculator to use while you’re shopping around for mutual funds that can help you understand the long-term impact of the fees.

It may surprise you how sales charges, management fees and lost opportunity cost can erode the total return on your mutual fund. Use this calculator to estimate the impact these charges may have on the growth of your investment.