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Choosing The Right Mutual Funds For Your 401k and 403b

By Erik Folgate

Adjusting to your first “real” job can be a daunting task. First of all, you have to get into the routine of getting up early every day and being ON TIME every day. Then, you have the task of relating to your co-workers and boss. Then, you have the human resources meeting about your benefits package. If your brain isn’t scrambled after all of that information, then you are a much better person than me when it comes to processing information.

Your company either has too many benefits to choose from, or they don’t have enough benefits. There is never a happy medium for the amount of benefits that a company offers. Don’t get caught in the trap of signing up for every benefit that the company offers, because you’ll get your first paycheck and half of it will be taken away from you with all of the stuff that you signed up for. The two benefits you definitely want to sign up for are health insurance and the retirement plan. I am going to elaborate more on the retirement plan now, and my next post will explain the choices you may be faced with when picking a health insurance plan offered by your company.

The 401(k): If you work for a private company, they will hopefully offer you a 401(k) retirement package. The downside of a 401(k) is that your investment options are limited to the choices that the financial advisors pick for your plan that manage the program for your company. The upside to a 401(k) is that many companies offer a company match. My company offers a 50% match for the money that I contribute to the plan up to a 6% contribution. So, that means that I’ll get 9% of my paycheck put into the account, but I only have to put in 6% of that money. The company match is FREE money. It’s ABSOLUTELY FREE money. Take advantage of that whenever you can.

There are basically four categories of mutual funds that you want to choose within your plan to sock away your money. You want to choose at least one Growth & Income fund, one Growth fund, one Aggressive Growth Fund, and one International fund.

Growth & Income: A growth and income fund is a mutual fund that invests in large private companies with moderate growth that pay a dividend to its shareholders. Basically, this is a good fund, because it’s return on investments hinges on stock growth, but also the money that is paid to you each month or year.

Growth Fund: A general growth fund is sometimes called a Mid-Cap or Large Cap fund. It invests in companies with a long track record of moderate growth. You’ll see stock in companies like microsoft, GE, AT&T, and other established companies. These are great funds to own, because they generally have great long-term track records and they generally follow the trend of an index such as the Dow Jones Average and the S&P 500. These mutual funds are also called INDEX FUNDS.

Aggressive Growth Funds: These fund are also called Small-Cap funds and they invest in smaller companies with a high potential for big growth. These funds are the most risky mutual funds. They can yield huge profits and huge losses. Don’t get too freaked out by these funds. A retirement fund is meant for the long-term so you have time to ride out the cyclical nature of these funds. The key is to look at the 10 year rate of return for these funds. Don’t look at the 1 year and 5 year returns. It won’t tell you anything about the long-term growth of these funds.

International Funds: An international mutual fund will usually be very straight forward. It will probably called The Something, Something International Fund. You want an international fund in your portfolio, because it will balance out your portfolio when the American market is not doing well. International funds have been performing great in the past due the emergence of the Chinese, Japaneses, and Indian market. Don’t forget to add this mutual fund!

Remember, when you are looking at all of the financial mumbo-jumbo for a mutual fund, skip the 1 year and 5 year return percentages, and go straight to the 10 year average rate of return. You want to see what the mutual fund has done in the long term. If the fund has not in existence for more than 10 years, I would stay away from it for a couple of years. Also, take a glance at the expense ratio. Anything over 1 is pretty high. This is basically a ratio that measures how much you’ll be paying in commission and administrative fees to the mutual fund managers.

The 403(b): For those of you that work for non-profit organizations and some government organizations like the school board, you’ll have a 403(b). They are pretty much the same thing as a 401(k), they’re just named differently because the IRS loves to make things confusing, so they gave them separate sections in the tax code. You can take everything that I said about the 401(k) and apply it to your 403(b) choices. Although, you really need to watch out for fixed and variable annuities that are offered in your 403(b) sometimes. If you see these, investigate them closely and see what kind of returns they have been getting in the past 10 years. Check the fees associated with these funds, too.

Remember, if you are in your twenties or thirties and starting a retirement fund, you have PLENTY OF ROOM to be aggressive with your investing style. Don’t pick a bunch of money market funds that make 5% on your money! If you factor in inflation and taxes, you need to make at least 5 or 6% on your money just to break even. Be aggressive and don’t pull out your money when times are rough. What goes down, must come up. The stock market has averaged a 12% return on your money over the past 75 years. Believe in it, and you’ll be very wealthy when you’re ready to kick work to the curb.

Erik Folgate
Erik and his wife, Lindzee, live in Orlando, Florida with a baby boy on the way. Erik works as an account manager for a marketing company, and considers counseling friends, family and the readers of Money Crashers his personal ministry to others. Erik became passionate about personal finance and helping others make wise financial decisions after racking up over $20k in credit card and student loan debt within the first two years of college.

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