Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Second Opinion on "Self-Medicating" Your 401(k)

At a recent event, one of the speakers was taking our industry to task for expecting too much from participants. “We don’t expect individuals to diagnose and treat their own illness,” he said, going on to note that with 401(k)s we expect people who don’t have any knowledge or training in investments to decide how to invest those balances.

Admittedly, those 401(k) investment decisions can be complicated for some — and, since it (mostly) is their money, after all, most do give individual participants the ability to decide how it will be invested. As nice as it would be if individuals were exposed to the basics of finance — saving, budgeting, investments — sometime in their lives ahead of that workplace plan enrollment meeting, or the pages of that 401(k) enrollment kit, that’s not the current system’s fault.

In reality, individuals are routinely asked to make decisions on things in which they have no real knowledge or training. On numerous occasions, I’ve had plumbers and mechanics ask me to make decisions to either replace or repair enormously expensive systems with no ready information other than the explanation of the alternatives from the professional who is asking me to make that decision. A professional who, in some cases, has a relationship dating back only to the point in time at which his or her name was gleaned from the Internet (or Yellow Pages). Fortunately, most of those decisions aren’t matters of life and death, even if there is all-too-frequently a certain urgency to them.

However, the event speaker’s assertions notwithstanding, while we may not expect individuals to accurately diagnose their illnesses, we do ask them to make decisions on complicated matters in which they lack expertise. For example, several years back, a friend of mine received a troubling diagnosis from his regular physician. Now the area of concern was beyond the particular expertise of that doctor, so he suggested that my friend seek the opinion of a specialist. He did, only to find that the specialist’s opinion directly contradicted that of the doctor he knew and trusted.

Now my friend had to make a decision — and one in which he had a vital interest — even though he lacked the personal expertise to fully evaluate and appreciate the options.

Keeping up with a 401(k) isn’t like when the plumbing starts to leak, or the “check engine” light comes on — clear signals that there is a problem that requires prompt attention. For the most part, retirement investment and planning issues are less obvious, though even that hardly makes them unique. My friend’s serious medical situation was diagnosed only because he had gone in for a checkup because he was of an age where you schedule them whether you think you need one or not.

Similarly, you don’t need to be a financial expert to manage your retirement savings — you just need to have the common sense and discipline to schedule regular financial checkups with someone who does.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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