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Retirement Gamble: How Fees are Killing Your Savings

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Over the next 16 years about 8,000 baby boomers will leave the workforce each day. These retirees will depend on savings and social security to live out their so-called golden years. For many, these years will be a struggle rather than the easy living they once looked forward to.

“One-third of American’s haven’t saved anything at all for retirement, and one-half say they don’t have enough money to save,” says Martin Smith, correspondent of “The Retirement Gamble, a Frontline report that will broadcast Tuesday evening, April 23. About 57% of U.S. workers have less than $25,000 in savings and investments excluding their homes, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Not saving enough is only one of the many problems that baby boomers are facing. Another one, says Smith, is the money that baby boomers and other savers forfeit to pay the high fees many mutual funds charge to invest their retirement savings.

Related: Just Explain It: What Are the Biggest Threats to Your Retirement Income

Actively managed mutual funds charge an average 1.3% in fees annually, says Smith. That doesn’t sound like much but over the course of 50 years the fees add up “well into six figures,” says Smith.

Smith interviewed economist Robert Hiltonsmith, who has been researching the retirement savings industry. The economist calculated that the average American household will lose $155,000 in fees, or 30% of what they would have otherwise saved, to money managers of their 401(k) funds.

John Bogle, the founder and former CEO of The Vanguard Group, provides Smith with an even more dramatic example. Bogle tells Smith that a fund charging 2% in fees will wipe out two-thirds of a retirement fund over 50 years. Smith was skeptical and did his own calculation, but found that Bogle was correct.

“Investors have one-shot at saving for retirement” says Smith. It’s important they save for it and understand where they are investing their money, both what they're investing in and the fees associated with that investment.

After talking with investment professionals, retirees and baby boomers nearing retirement, Smith developed his own checklist for those saving for retirement. Some of his recommendations are listed below.

  • Don’t expect to successfully time the market
  • Choose index funds over actively managed funds
  • Talk to your employer about including index funds in their 401(K) options
  • Understand the fees associated with your mutual funds
  • Use a fiduciary investment advisor

Related: Just Explain It: Maximizing Your Retirement Income Without Working

“Eighty-five percent of financial planners are not fiduciaries,” says Smith, meaning they do not put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, and may even earn a kickback from the funds in which they invest their clients’ money.

Smith himself looked at his own 401(k) plan and found that he was invested in a few high-fee funds. He subsequently withdrew from those funds and moved the money into low-fee index funds.

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