Summary: Choose the PERA 401k plan and invest as much as you can.
The first part of this post repeats the information in the LPS Retirement Plans post, then the rest of it is specific to the choices you have in DCSD.
The idea of retirement is a fairly new one. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the concept of retiring from work and “living a life of leisure” was even a concept. Many employers started offering pension plans and then Social Security came along in 1937. Then in 1978, the idea of a tax-deferred savings plan (401k) was created, although it’s original intent was not the way we’ve ended up using it.
Social Security was really designed to be part of a “3-legged stool” concept of retirement, that retirees would draw from their company pension, from social security and from their personal savings. As pension plans have gone out of favor and 401ks have taken their place (particularly in the private sector), it has really become a two-legged stool (which is somewhat problematic). For public school employees in Colorado, PERA is a social security replacement plan, so basically covers those two legs, leaving the personal savings leg for you to figure out on your own. That’s where employer-offered tax-deferred savings plans come in.
All PERA employers offer the PERA 401k plan to their employees, and some employers also offer access to the PERA 457 and the newly created PERA Roth 401k/457 plans. Many school districts also offer additional, non-PERA options for tax-deferred accounts. This post will focus on what’s offered in Douglas County School District, but you should check with your employer to see what options they offer.
DCSD allows you to choose between PERA and MetLife for retirement savings vehicles, offering the PERA 401k and the MetLife 403b, 457, and Roth 403b plans. There are subtle differences between 401k, 403b and 457 plans that can be important but, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll treat them as roughly the same, with the important exception that you have separate contribution limits for 401k/403b and 457 plans which gives you the ability to save more if you have the cash flow to do that.
This post is not intended to be an in-depth explanation of 401k/403b/457 plans (or their Roth versions), but let me try to briefly describe them (if you decide to work with me we can dive deeper if need be). The idea behind 401k/403b/457 plans is to save money in a tax-deferred account, which means that you are not taxed on your income that you place into those accounts now, nor are you taxed on the earnings in those accounts as they accumulate, but you are only taxed when you make withdrawals which will hopefully be when you are retired. The traditional thinking is that most folks will be in a lower tax bracket when they are retired, so not only do you reap the benefits of saving “extra” all those years by not paying taxes up front, but when you do pay taxes upon withdrawal you will pay a smaller amount.
More recently Roth 401k/403b/457 plans have been created (along with Roth IRAs, which don’t flow through your employer) that take a different approach. For these plans you do pay taxes on any income you invest, but the earnings grow tax free and all withdrawals in retirement are tax free as well. In other words, pay the tax up front, never have to worry about taxes on this money again. For folks who think their tax bracket might actually be higher in retirement, this is a better option.
The obvious conundrum is how do you know for sure whether your tax bracket will be higher or lower in retirement? You don’t, which is why many folks choose to put money into both types of accounts to hedge their bets and give themselves more flexibility in retirement by giving them the option to withdraw from whichever account makes the most sense based on their current tax situation. (There are also some really nice benefits of a Roth if you are trying to leave an inheritance.)
Many employees, especially younger ones, kind of throw up their hands at all this. Retirement seems like a long way off, the choices can be complicated, and of course choosing not to spend money right now can be difficult for some folks. But the beauty and power of investing is compound interest, and it’s most effective the more time you give your money to grow, so the sooner you start, the better (and easier) it is to generate the retirement savings you want.
Many folks thinking about 401k/403b/457 plans also don’t take into account the effect on the tax-deferral on their current income. They think about putting say $100 a month into a 401k, but then worry they can’t do without that $100 a month. But they’re missing that their actual paycheck won’t go down by $100, but more like $70 (if you are in the 25% federal bracket, plus 4.65% for Colorado taxes). The government is basically saying, “invest $70 and we’ll give you $30” (always remembering that eventually they are going to tax you on that when you withdraw it). If you choose the Roth options, you don’t get that tax break up front, so your paycheck will decrease by $100 (but the potential for tax-free growth over time is tremendous).
So, with that overview, if you are a DCSD employee, should you choose PERA or MetLife? Well, again, that depends on your individual circumstances and I’d be happy to discuss those with you, but for most people PERA is the better choice because of lower fees.
PERA offers a choice of several funds or a self-directed brokerage account if you want more control. For most folks, the funds are the better choice. In 2011 PERA chose to go with a “white-label” approach to investments. Research has shown that many folks make poor investment choices when given too many choices so, instead, a “white-label” approach has you choose among asset allocation choices instead of picking individual funds.
I’ll write more in future posts, but there are basically three things you can control when saving for retirement:
- How much you save.
- What asset allocation you choose.
- How much in fees you pay.
By going with a white-label approach and trying to keep fees low, PERA has tried to simplify the second and third choices for you. For each of their asset classes, PERA has typically gone with a combination of a passive (index) approach and an active (managed) approach. This combination gives you lower fees than a fully active approach, but higher fees than a strictly indexed approach. PERA thinks that they can achieve higher returns than the index this way. I’m a big fan of index funds, so I’m not totally convinced of this approach but, so far in their short lifespan (since 2011), they have mostly achieved this to a small extent.
PERA does also give you a self-directed brokerage option (for an additional fee), which allows you almost unlimited choices in investments. For most folks, the additional complication of choices and fees make this sub-optimal, but it’s there if you want it.
For some reason, DCSD and/or MetLife have made it extremely difficult to get information about the plan. It took me three weeks of emails and calls to finally get the information we needed. (The way they currently have it set up, you can only find out information about investment choices and fees after signing up and giving them money, which is less than ideal. They are working on fixing that.)
MetLife gives you access to a small set of individual mutual funds, which is one of the reasons the fees tend to be a bit higher (0.34% administrative fee plus the underlying fund fees, some of which are pretty high). Here’s a comparison of fees for a large-cap investment in the PERA white-label fund, the PERA self-directed brokerage option invested in a large-cap index fund (they require you to keep $500 in PERAdvantage funds), and the MetLife option invested in the same index fund. (You can view comparisons for other asset classes here.)
If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the cheapest option is the PERA self-directed brokerage option (as soon as you pass about $20,000 in your account), with the PERAdvantage funds coming in second, and MetLife coming in last. Since the middle and third columns are essentially the same choice in terms of what you’re investing in, there’s no reason to choose the higher fee MetLife option over the PERA option. If you are investing a lot, you can save in fees by going the self-directed brokerage option, but this is where PERA would argue that they think they will outperform the index and make up those fee differences. The differences are small enough between the first two columns that, for most folks, it’s probably best to stick with the PERAdvantage options.
Importantly, this fee difference gets much more extreme if you choose anything other than the three Vanguard choices in MetLife. The MetLife Target funds have a total fee of 1% (compared to 0.18% for PERA), and the International Fund is 1.48% (compared to 0.52% for PERA). This is really, really bad, and you should avoid these at all cost (pun intended). The only reason to choose MetLife is if you’ve maxed out your 401k and want to contribute additional money to a 457 (since their contribution limits are separate, and DCSD has chosen not to allow contributions to the PERA 457 plan). I hope that DCSD considers adding the PERA 457 option in the future as an alternative to the high-priced MetLife.
In future posts I’ll write more regarding possible asset allocations (which fund(s) should you choose), contribution limits (and the fact that you get separate limits for 401k/403b vs. 457, allowing you to save much more if you can), and the power of compounding. But, for now, this gives you an idea of where to start. The key thing is to start now and put as much as you can into one or more of these vehicles so that your “stool” will be sturdy enough to support you in retirement.