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Can Your 401(k) Lose Money?


Investing in a 401(k) account offers the potential for long-term growth and financial security. However, it’s crucial to understand that this retirement savings vehicle is not immune to losses. Your 401(k) is investing in the stock market, so it’s possible to lose money over time. Here is how it works and how the markets have performed over the decades. You may want to consult with a financial advisor for your unique situation.

Can Your 401(k) Lose Money?

A 401(k) account invests in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, which are volatile assets. Therefore, your account can lose money if the companies whose stocks you hold perform poorly or a market downturn occurs. These occurrences result in a decrease in your account’s value.

Remember, investing always carries some risk and the potential for loss is inherent in any investment. However, 401(k) accounts are long-term retirement savings vehicles. So, while they can experience temporary losses, they generally have the potential for growth over the long term.

How Markets Have Performed Over Decades

The performance of the American stock market over the decades has shown a general upward trend, despite experiencing periods of volatility and market downturns. That said, past performance does not indicate future results and a wide range of factors can influence the stock market.

Historically, the U.S. stock market has exhibited long-term growth, as major indices such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average represent. Over several decades, the stock market has experienced periods of significant gains and periods of decline.

For example, in the mid-20th century, the stock market experienced steady growth, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising about 4,000 points from 1950 to 1960. Market volatility and economic challenges, including the oil crisis and high inflation, characterized the 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s saw substantial growth, driven by technological advancements and financial deregulation. During the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, stock prices reached unsustainable levels, resulting in a subsequent market correction.

Then, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the events of 9/11 led to a market decline in the early 2000s. However, the stock market gradually recovered and by the mid-2000s, it reached new highs. The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in a severe market downturn, but the market rebounded in subsequent years, leading to an extended bull market that lasted until 2020.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a global market downturn, but central bank interventions and government stimulus measures contributed to a relatively swift recovery. The market continued to show resilience and reached new record levels in subsequent years. This trend matches the historical pattern of the stock market, which has provided about a 10% annualized return to date since its inception.

What to Do If Your Balance Drops 

can you lose money in 401k

Experiencing a loss in your investment portfolio can be disheartening, but there are several steps you can consider taking if this happens:

  1. Stay Cool: It’s essential to remain calm and avoid making impulsive decisions based on short-term market fluctuations. Remember, your 401(k) investments are typically long-term commitments and temporary losses can be part of the established market cycle.
  2. Assess The Situation: Evaluate the reasons behind the loss. Is it a result of a market downturn, a specific event (such as corporate malpractice or bankruptcy), or a poor investment choice? Understanding the underlying causes helps you decide between riding it out or jumping ship if the asset will likely depreciate further.
  3. Review Your Investment Strategy: Assess your investment strategy and determine whether it aligns with your financial goals and risk tolerance. Consider consulting with a financial advisor to evaluate your portfolio and make any necessary adjustments to your investment plan. Doing so can involve diversifying your portfolio across different asset classes, industries and geographic regions. Diversification reduces the pain when your balance takes a hit.
  4. Consider Long-Term Prospects: Evaluate the long-term prospects of your investments. A temporary loss may not necessarily impact the fundamentals of a well-managed and fundamentally strong investment. Assess whether the reasons you invested in those assets still hold true.
  5. Stay Invested And Avoid Panic Selling: Timing the market is a pipe dream and panic selling can often lead to missing out on market recoveries. Successful long-term investors generally stay invested, especially if their investment strategy suits their goals well.

How to Minimize Risk in Your 401K

To minimize risk with your 401(k) account, consider the following strategies:

  • Diversify Your Investments: Spread your investments across asset classes such as stocks, bonds, real estate and cash equivalents. Diversification mitigates the impact of any single investment’s poor performance on your overall portfolio.
  • Regularly Rebalance: Periodically review and rebalance your portfolio to maintain your desired asset allocation. This way, you’ll sell investments that have performed well and buy more underperforming assets to restore your desired balance. Your 401(k) automatically rebalances itself if you select a target-date fund. These funds change and mature according to your time horizon and allocate more money to conservative assets as you near retirement.
  • Understand Your Investment Options: Familiarize yourself with the investment options available within your 401(k) plan. Consider their historical performance, risk levels and investment strategies. Then, you can choose a mix of investments that align with your risk tolerance and long-term objectives.
  • Review and Adjust Contributions: Regularly review your contribution levels and consider increasing them over time if your financial situation allows it. Increasing contributions can help you take advantage of dollar-cost averaging, where you invest a fixed amount regularly, buying more shares when prices are lower and fewer when prices are higher.
  • Stay Informed: Keep yourself informed about market trends, economic conditions and any updates or changes to your 401(k) plan. This knowledge can help you make informed decisions and adjust your investment strategy if necessary.
  • Seek Professional Advice: If you are unsure about how to handle your investment losses or need guidance in adjusting your portfolio, consider consulting with a financial advisor. They can provide personalized advice based on your specific financial situation and goals.

The Bottom Line

can you lose money in 401k

Investing in a 401(k) account carries risks and the account can experience losses due to poor company performance or market downturns. However, historical trends have shown the American stock market to exhibit long-term growth despite periods of volatility generally. When your investment portfolio loses value, it’s important to remain calm, assess the situation, avoid panic selling and seek professional advice. These strategies can help minimize risk and optimize your 401(k) savings for long-term growth and financial security.

Tips for Minimizing 401(k) Losses

  • Allocating assets and choosing between fund types can be challenging. Fortunately, a financial advisor can develop a retirement plan and help you find assets that match your priorities. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goalsget started now.
  • Having a 401(k) is an ideal foundation for a retirement plan. However, knowing how much you should contribute to your 401(k) can be unclear.

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