401k investing post preceded by LRPC's Plan Sponsor Insight image

Your 401k plan participants have developed bad habits and make many 401k investing mistakes. Dalbar calculates that for 2016 the average equity investor earned a little more than 7% while the S&P returned nearly 12%. Many of those investors are 401k plan participants.

Here are some of the 401k investing errors your participants often make and suggestions on what you can do to help them avoid the most common 401k investing mistakes.

401k Investing Mistakes

Making poor initial elections

A Financial Engines study found that more than 60% of unadvised participants made incorrect initial allocations based on their ability to bear risk. In addition, many participants believe that proper diversification is achieved by allocating the same percentage to every fund in the plan. Also, a large number of your participants have a brother-in-law, cousin or aunt who is an “investment expert” and helped them choose their initial allocations. Yikes!

And then there is rebalancing

I know, it’s hard to remember to rebalance each year. There is a lot going on around the end of the year and it’s easy to get caught up in the holidays, family fun and taxes. This is the most common 401k investing error. Not rebalancing at least annually results in actual allocations that move further and further away from desired allocations.

For example, most participants’ equity allocations have become too high as the result of strong equity market activity this year. Not rebalancing results in participants taking more risk than they are able to bear. This becomes apparent when markets fall and participants are shocked at how much their account balance has decreased.

Listening to a stock-picking “guru”

You probably have investment gurus in your employee population who enjoy sharing their “knowledge” with their fellow employees. They may have developed systems, created spreadsheets and even published newsletters on 401k investing in your plan. It is a wonder that these gurus actually have time to do their jobs! Unfortunately, many of your employees listen to them.

Everyone says to do this

If our friends believe what we believe, then we all must be correct. Everyone can’t be wrong, right? Confirmation bias causes us to actively seek information that confirms what we already believe. We feel better knowing that we all are doing the same thing. Many of your employees will check their thinking with their friends to find out how they are investing. They also may find their way to one of the investment gurus you have working for you. That is not good.

Don’t miss the bus!

We are all very nervous about missing something and will chase an investment opportunity that keeps going up and up, eventually buying it when it is highly priced. We hate missing out on something good, even if we don’t make any money on it.

We fall in love

Some employees treat their investments like good friends. I have heard participants say, “That fund has always been good to me, Bob.” Unfortunately, right now that fund is too risky for you. It is also hard for us to cut our losses early when we make bad investment decisions. Some of us put a lot of time and analysis into an investment decision and feel that the opportunity “just needs a little more time.” We forget to reevaluate when unpredictable events occur (e.g., Trump’s election) and become enamored with the investment.

Buying high and selling low

Why? It seems so simple to do the exact opposite. Because we listen more to our emotions than our brains. We get greedy, then we get scared. And we have to make that important investment decision right now before things get worse (or that investment moves any higher without us).

Everyone is above-average

Survey data indicate that more than 80% of us believe that we are above-average investors, although the Dalbar data shared earlier don’t seem to back this up.  (I also am amused by survey data that show that 90%+ of us believe we are above-average drivers). As a result, when something goes wrong, we don’t believe we are responsible and resist making changes to our process.


1. Give all participants a risk assessment quiz every year

Make it part of your employee education sessions. I pass out an assessment and give everyone 10 minutes to complete it. I explain what to do with the results and offer to talk with anyone who has questions. I also like to hand out a beneficiary form to everyone. No surprise, the majority of beneficiary forms you have on file are not up-to-date.

2. Offer basic investment advice to every participant. Free.

Many recordkeepers have this option available. Your employee education sessions should provide information on how to access the advice option and when it is appropriate to reach out (hint: before making an investment decision). In addition, make sure all participants receive your investment advisor’s contact information and suggest participants contact him/her if they become concerned about their account balance.

3. Offer a target date series

Make sure your fund menu includes at least one balanced fund option, such as target date funds, and designate it as your Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA). Target date funds relieve participants of the burden of having to make allocation and rebalancing decisions. This solution solves many 401k investing problems.

4. Re-enroll everyone into the QDIA in your plan

Participants can opt out and select their own allocations if they want, but the data indicate the majority don’t. This fixes all those bad allocation problems (e.g., participants who have their entire account balance in the real estate fund). It also ensures that appropriate rebalancing will occur in the future for those who stay in a target date fund.

5. Adopt an auto-enrollment provision

Significantly reduce initial allocation problems by adding an auto-enrollment feature to your plan that enrolls everyone into a target date QDIA. Re-enroll non-participants each year to achieve plan participation rates in the low 90% range.

These changes can have a significant impact on the success your 401k participants have investing in your plan and will help them achieve retirement readiness.


About the Author

Robert C. Lawton, AIF, CRPS is the founder and President of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC. Mr. Lawton is an award-winning 401(k) investment adviser with over 30 years of experience. He has consulted with many Fortune 500 companies, including: Aon Hewitt, Apple, AT&T, First Interstate Bank, Florida Power & Light, General Dynamics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, IBM, John Deere, Mazda Motor Corporation, Northwestern Mutual, Northern Trust Company, Trek Bikes, Tribune Company, Underwriters Labs and many others. Mr. Lawton may be contacted at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to 401(k) plan sponsors. The firm currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than $400 million in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com or visit the firm’s website at: https://www.lawtonrpc.com. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice, and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.