Help for mounting 401(k) losses

If you're freaking out about your retirement losses, you might need a more transparent strategy.

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By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine senior editor

Since the start of the recent market meltdown, how often do you check your 401(k) balance?
  • Once a day
  • Once a week
  • Once a month
  • I can't bear to look

NEW YORK (Money) -- Question: I'm retired and my 401(k) has lost approximately 35% over the past year. My financial adviser tells me to stay the course, but the losses keep mounting. What should I do? -Dale Marcos, Lafayette, Indiana

Answer: For starters, you should demand a better answer from your financial adviser. Just telling someone to "stay the course" isn't an adequate answer any time an investor expresses doubt or confusion about an investing or planning strategy, and it's certainly not an acceptable reply given the virtually unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty we're experiencing today.

You can't blame your adviser for not foreseeing the severity of this downturn before it occurred. Nobody's crystal ball is that clear. But an adviser, or at least a good one, is supposed to help you create an investing strategy and retirement plan that can see you through a variety of economic and market scenarios.

Your adviser can't immunize you against losses altogether. That would be unrealistic if you also want your retirement savings to grow and support you for the rest of your life. But the plan should balance upside potential with some measure of downside protection that makes sense given your age, risk tolerance and your financial resources.

Most important, your adviser should be willing to get together with you in times like these to go over the plan, see if it's working as expected and discuss whether or not it needs to be revised.

On the face of it, a 35% decline over the past 12 months seems a bit much for someone who's retired. Given that stocks are down about 40% over that period and the broad bond market is flat to slightly up, that suggests a stock allocation somewhere between 80% and 90%. That strikes me as pretty risky for a retiree.

But without more information about your overall finances - like whether the decline you cite includes withdrawals, what other investments you own and how heavily you'll be relying on your 401(k) for living expenses - I can't say for sure whether your 401(k) is invested too aggressively.

Ask for more transparency

Whatever the particulars of your situation, this much is clear: You are upset about the performance of your account and you aren't getting enough feedback from your adviser to know whether the path he wants you to stay on is the right one.

Here's what I recommend. Go back to your adviser and explain that you need to know what course it is exactly that you are on and why you should stick to it. I'd ask to see how my portfolio is divvied up between stocks and bonds (as well as among different types of stocks and bonds) and I'd want an explanation of why that allocation makes sense given today's conditions.

I'd also want to see some sort of analysis that shows how much income I can reasonably expect throughout retirement from my investments, Social Security and pensions, if any, and how that income compares to my projected living expenses.

Move on

If your adviser can't or won't do this, you have two choices. You can take this kind of comprehensive look at your retirement finances on your own by revving up an online tool like Fidelity's Retirement Income Planner or T. Rowe Price's Retirement Income Calculator.

Or you can switch to an adviser who is willing to do this type of assessment for you. If you do move on to another adviser, be careful. There are lots of people with impressive-sounding credentials who really operate more as a salesman than financial adviser, looking to take advantage of fearful investors in uncertain times like these. To find a reputable adviser, search the Financial Planning Association Web site or the Garrett Planning Network.

Who knows, maybe your adviser has already revisited the advice he or she gave to you and other clients and crunched the numbers again. Perhaps that's why your adviser can so confidently tell you to stay the course. But if I were as worried as you seem to be, I'd want more convincing (and maybe a look at some alternatives) before I went along.

Still wondering how you'll afford to retire? Get the answers to all your questions about IRAs, 401(k)s, Social Security, investing, taxes, pensions, annuities and more at our Ultimate Guide to Retirement. Whether you're starting out or are weeks away from your farewell party, you'll find everything you need to know to prosper.

Read Updegrave's Ask the Expert column twice a week at cnnmoney.com/expert. E-mail him at wupdegrave@moneymail.com.
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