I’ve been investing in a 401(k) retirement account since I joined the ranks of the corporate employed seven years ago. I started with a small percentage of my income, just enough to take advantage of the full company match. As my income increased, I diverted a larger percentage to the 401(k) with the hopes of retiring with a sizable nest egg decades later. I’m at the point now where I am contributing the full amount allowed by law.
This plan has worked well for a while. But like most people in similar situations, my 401(k) suffered damage over the past year or two. I figured that over the course of my career, I’d hit a recession at some point, and I suppose I am lucky that I am not forced to retire and begin drawing income right now, with the account value depleted.
Here is a graph that depicts my 401(k) account value since January 2004.
The cost basis, or the amount I invested, is represented by the line and the market value of the account is represented by the bars. Ignore the bump in the cost basis at the end of 2004. That should be a smooth curve. From 2005 through most of 2007, my account was performing quite well. Soon after that, the value fell below my cost basis. I was losing money on paper.
I continued to invest in my 401(k) every other week. Even with increased investments, my account has not caught up to my cost basis. The Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Investment Company Institute recently released a report that shows that many investors have been able to bring their 401(k) account balances above the level recorded at the beginning of 2008. I fall into this group, but at the beginning of 2008 my account value was higher than my cost basis. As of today, the total value of my 401(k) is below my cost basis.
In other words, if I had been putting the portion of my paycheck that I had been investing in my 401(k) into a bank account — or even kept cash under my mattress — I would have fared better. So far. The good news is that while I was investing throughout the past few years, I was, I hope, purchasing funds at relative bargain prices. If stock market performance returns to average over a long period of time, I should be in luck; those bargains will pay off.
What is the state of your 401(k)?
401(k) investors: Hit hard in ’08, doing better now, Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com, October 6, 2009
Published or updated October 7, 2009.