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Is your 401(k) safe?

Gerri Willis answers questions from readers who are worried about the safety of their retirement in these grim market conditions.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN

For more information on managing your largest investment, check out Gerri Willis' "Home Rich," now in bookstores.

NEW YORK ( -- If you think your 401(k) is about to disappear, there are a few things you need to keep in mind before you give up hope.

1) Your money is safe

We're all getting our 401(k) statements in the mail, and for most of us, the balances are a lot lower.

But there's one thing you can take heart in - the money that you do have is safe if the company that manages it goes out of business. It's held in trust for you on your behalf. No one can access it. Not even bankruptcy courts.

And your money is held separately than the institution it's in. It's not co-mingled with profits for any company. It's just yours.

If the company that's in charge of your 401(k) goes bankrupt, your assets are still safe and you can still get your money.

2) Get the facts

403(b)s are retirement plans that operate like 401(k)s, except they are targeted toward people who work in non-profit companies, like hospitals, schools or government. And the protections are similar to 401(k)s except there are a few critical differences.

In independent 401(b)s you are required to go out and negotiate your own deal with financial companies - and that can add more confusion and more fees.

What you don't have with 403(b)s is a plan fiduciary. This fiduciary is responsible for making sure you have the right investment options to choose from and that fees are kept in-check.

Plus, this fiduciary is on the hook - personally - if anything goes wrong. So if you're a 401(k) holder and something goes awry in your 401(k), you can sue this fiduciary.

3) Diversify

Last week was third worst weekly point drop for the Dow. This year the Dow is down 22%. And, similarly, people's 401(k) assets have been just as devastated.

Sadly, there is no insurance against investment loss. That's what makes diversity and asset allocation as important now than ever before.

Take a peek into your portfolio. Make sure you don't have a lot of company stock and spread your risk around in a number of different investments.

Are you retired or approaching retirement and worried about your economic future? Gerri Willis is looking for people willing to share their concerns about the financial crisis and how it's impacting their investments, lifestyle and/or retirement plans. If you're interested in being featured on CNN, please email us your name, contact information and a photo, along with a brief summary of your situation. To top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send e-mails to or click here - each week, we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and
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