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Before joining the millions of people who participate in 401(k) plans, you should know about these five 401k disadvantages.

For most, the advantages of 401(k) plans outweigh the disadvantages. But there are some people who would benefit from steering their retirement savings to other investment vehicles. Could you be one of them? This roundup of 401(k) disadvantages will help you decide. If you want more hands-on guidance while examining how a 401(k) could fit into your whole financial profile, this financial advisor finder tool can help you get professional advice.

According to the most recent data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), more than 27 million Americans participate in their companies’ 401k plans. If you’re one of them or plan to join them, you probably think of 401(k)s as having only an upside. After all, they’re a benefit, like health insurance or paid time off. Yet this tax-deferred retirement savings vehicle is not great for everyone. Consider these five disadvantages before making your next move:

401(k) Disadvantage #1: You May End Up Paying More in Taxes

A woman considers her retirement. There are a number of 401k disadvantages.

The big appeal of 401(k) plans is that they act as tax shelters. As long as you leave the money untouched, you don’t owe taxes on the funds you contribute to the plan, and you don’t owe taxes on any gains.

Yet you will have to pay taxes once you retire and start making withdrawals from your account. You’ll owe income tax on your contributions and on your gains. So if you have a bigger income when you retire than when you made contributions, you’ll be in a higher tax bracket and owe more than if you hadn’t deferred your taxes. Similarly, if your tax bracket puts you at a higher rate than the long-term capital gains tax rate (0%, 15% or 20%, depending on your income, under the 2018 tax law), you will pay more in taxes.

That said, most people expect to earn less when they stop working, since their only income will be from their investments and Social Security. But those just starting out in their careers are, indeed, likely making less now. Alternately, people who have been smart about saving and investing may actually have a higher income when they retire.

If you’re entry-level or a superstar saver, you may want to consider a Roth IRA or see if your company offers a Roth 401(k). With these savings plans, you pay income taxes upfront on your contributions and no taxes on any gains when you retire.

401(k) Disadvantage #2: Contributions Follow a Schedule, Regardless of Market Conditions

Of course, you should never try to time the market. Experts base this advice on something called dollar-cost averaging. The idea is that if you steadily buy small amounts during market highs, lows and plateaus, you will ultimately pay less for all of your investments than if you tried to buy only at the lows. This is partly based on the fact that you don’t know a bottom until it has passed. Plus, most people don’t have time to watch the market – or the discipline to set aside money for later purchases.

Yet in real time, you may want to hold off a purchase by even a day or increase the amount during a sell-off. Neither is possible with a 401(k), since purchases follow a regular schedule and changes take time to process. Also, many plans limit the number of times you can make adjustments to your plan.

If you don’t pay attention to the markets, the lack of flexibility doesn’t really apply to you. But if you’re a DIY investor, you may want to contribute to your 401(k) only up to your company match and then put the rest of your savings in an individual retirement account (IRA) that you can control.

401(k) Disadvantage #3:You May Be Paying More in Fees

Deciding whether 401k disadvantages apply to you is a personal calculation.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans are heavily regulated. That’s a good thing. Your company can’t put vesting requirements on your withheld wages, for example. But it also means that the administration of your plan comes with high fees. They’re often baked into mutual fund expenses, but you may also see them as separate charges and itemized costs for administrative services.

Ideally, your employer did due diligence when choosing a plan administrator. That said, smaller companies may pay higher fees, since the economies of scale aren’t in their favor. If you think your plan is too expensive, again, you may want to contribute to it only up to your company match and then put the rest of your retirement savings in an individual account that you can choose.

401(k) Disadvantage #4: Your Investment Choices Are Limited

Hopefully, your plan offers a variety of options: index and actively managed funds; large- mid- and small-caps; growth, value and conservative funds; company stock and more. But the number and kind of offerings are up to your company.

If you are an experienced and successful investor and you don’t like your company’s options, you may want to go the IRA route, after getting the company match. After all, the smart money wouldn’t leave free cash on the table.

And if you’re seeking outside help as you make your investment decisions, make sure you’re examining these must-do moves before choosing a wealth management firm.

401(k) Disadvantage #5: You Can’t Easily Touch the Money Before You Retire

Of course, you shouldn’t touch the money before you retire. If you make a withdrawal before age 59.5, you’ll pay a high-to-be-prohibitive 10% penalty, plus taxes.

But desperate situations call for extreme measures. Huge medical bills are an example. The IRS allows for penalty-free withdrawals for certain “hardships,” but employers don’t have to provide for them. Many, in fact, will offer the option of a loan (you have to pay yourself back) rather than a withdrawal.

A savings fund just for emergencies is the best way to prepare for one. Still, if having the option of tapping retirement savings is important to you, a 401(k) may not be as well-suited for your needs as a Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your contributions (but not your earnings), penalty-free and at any age.

The Bottom Line

For most people, a 401(k) plan is a great work benefit. This is particularly the case if their company matches some part of their contribution. But for other people, especially those who are early in their careers or are experienced, hands-on investors, other savings vehicles that don’t defer taxes may be a better pick.

Retirement Savings Tips

  • Annually upping the percentage of your income that you sock away will help you avoid downward mobility when you retire. Getting expert investment advice will too. With SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool you can find the top fiduciary advisors in your area, customized to your needs. To start, simply answer a few questions about your financial goals.
  • Have some serious catching up to do? With SmartAsset’s retirement calculator you can take the guesswork out of knowing how much you need to put away now to have enough later. Then maximize your contribution to a tax-deferred account, since saving pre-tax dollars lessens the pain.

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/bob_bosewell, ©iStock.com/AntonioGuillem and ©iStock.com/Jirapong Manustrong

Caroline Hwang Caroline Hwang has been writing about personal finance for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in print and online, including in the New York Times and HuffPo. Before coming to SmartAsset, she worked on the staffs of such publications as Glamour, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Caroline has a bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from New York University. She has yet to beat her young son at chess.
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