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Costly financial fees you may not know you’re paying

Dayana Yochim
NerdWallet

At the supermarket, shoppers receive detailed receipts of their scanned and bagged items. After restaurant meals, the wait staff hands diners itemized bills. But call out “Check, please!” to a financial services provider and the result might be a rundown of cryptic line items — 12b-1? Expense ratio? Or a passing reference to Part 2 of Form ADV.

Thanks to a new fee-disclosure rule from the Department of Labor, financial pros who offer retirement advice will have to disclose all costs associated with their services and products beginning in April.

But a disclosure that meets the letter of the law might not tell you exactly how much you’re paying in dollars and cents. To find out, you need to know what those fees are called, where they’re referenced, and how they’re calculated.

■What’s missing from your retirement savings statement: “Amount due for fees” isn’t a line item most investors will find in their statements. Instead, fees are typically expressed as a percentage of the assets in an account and then skimmed off the top of annual returns or baked into an investment’s share price.

The lack of clarity might explain why 46 percent of full-time employed baby boomers polled by investment advisory firm Rebalance IRA in 2014 said they believed they paid no fees in their retirement accounts.

If only that were true. Based on average contribution rates, 401(k) fees and plan costs, a median-income couple, both of whom work, would pay nearly $155,000 in investment fees over 40 years, according to public policy organization Demos. That’s almost one-third of their total retirement savings returns.

Fees charged by mutual funds within 401(k) plans are on the decline, but all-in costs — including plan administrative fees — often depend on factors including plan size, total assets, service levels and fee structure that are largely outside of an individual consumer’s control.

■Start digging for fees here: If you know what you’re looking for, it’s a lot easier to find the fees buried in 401(k) plan summaries, obscured by jargon in mutual fund prospectuses, and banished to the dark corners of money management firms’ FAQs. Here’s where to point your headlamp:

■401(k) administrative fees: Some employers match a portion of each employee’s retirement plan contributions, and the most generous also kick in for the costs of record keeping, compliance and investment curation. That tab is usually around 1 to 2 percent annually, charged as a percentage of assets. See the plan’s “summary plan description” or email HR to find out if you or your company pays the administrative fees. If the fee is on the high side, consider investing in the 401(k) only until you’ve maxed out the company match and directing additional retirement savings dollars to a self-managed IRA.

■Mutual fund management fees: Want a new way to say “fee”? Crack open a mutual fund prospectus where sales commissions, management and administrative costs are referred to by names such as “loads” and “12b-1 fees.” The double blow of the “expense ratio” is the most costly of all: First, as the account balance increases, so does the amount skimmed off the top to cover fees. And every dollar paid in fees is one less dollar left to compound and grow.

■Personal money management/advisory fees: The cost of hiring a fee-only financial planner sounds straightforward. But is that fee charged per hour, by task, as a percentage of assets managed or a combination of these methods? And is there a minimum or required retainer? Form ADV — which advisers are required to file with the SEC and provide to clients at least once per year — covers a money manager’s fee arrangement basics, but the best way to learn specifics is to ask. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors offers a script of tough questions to ask a financial adviser.