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Nobel Prize-Winning 401(k) Advice

The new 401(k) fee-disclosure rules the Labor Department approved last week don’t address the bigger problem with the retirement plans, says psychologist Daniel Kahneman: They’re too much like cookie jars.

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It’s not surprising 401(k)s mint so few millionaires, given that money stashed away for the future can so easily be cashed out in the present, he says. Kahneman, whose investigations into the biases and mental hiccups that make humans lousy decision makers won him the Nobel Prize, says these pots of cash are just too much a temptation.

“I have a sweet tooth,” the author of Thinking Fast and Slow tells “When I have cookies at home, I consume them — because they are there.” Reaching into one’s nest egg can be just as irresistible, he says. Nearly a quarter of 401(k) savers allowed to take loans do so at any given time, according to one recent study — and over a seven-year period that rate increases to 50%. “It’s clear that in the conflict between the present and the future, the present tends to win,” Kahneman says. “The ease with which the 401(k) savings can be withdrawn when a financial emergency arises is clearly disastrous for people. Given the choice between cashing out your 401(k) and borrowing from relatives, most feel an obligation to go with the 401(k).”

As a general rule, investors would be better off with their hands tied and eyes close, he says. “With respect to my own investment policy, I have a very simple rule: don’t look,” he says. “I don’t look how well my investments are doing so I am not tempted to make quick decisions about it.” Freedom, he contends, can be overrated.

Kahneman’s work in behavioral economics highlighted our tendency to stumble when numbers are involved. The interplay between our automatic thinking and our more reflective analysis, causes us to stumble on statistics and all too often make the wrong call.

Our aversion to loss is a far more powerful force in decision making than the desire to gain, Kahneman stresses. So when decisions do need to be made, they shouldn’t be made quickly. “When it’s important, slow down. Take as much time as possible, pre-commit to a plan and stick with it.”


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    • Hans Nancy, to start with: the last thing you are is foolish!Although I have found that kids are wurnedfol at any age (ours are 23 and 21 now and they are still great!), yours are now at a very special age: they are old enough to have a decent conversation with, they start forming their own opinions, they are adults in the making’. Yet, they are young enough still to want to be with you all the time, to learn from you, to be 100% part of family life. Soon, in the next year or 3, that is going to change: they will want to be more themselves’ and less part of you’. That is an obvious and neccesary process. So your epic trip (of which I read at least twice a week) is almost the end of an era’ when it comes to this phase in the relationship with your boys. You would have been SO sorry if you had not done this. And being teachers, you can as you say always work a bit longer to supplement your retirement savings.From a selfish point of view: I dont look forward to the day you get to the end of the trip, I will miss my regular read then![]

    • This is good advice, save and don’t look back. However a 401(k) should be one of many retirement vehicles as they tax on the harvest and not the seed.

    • I’ve got news for you out there. The only ones you should be watching out for are the “politicians in Washington, D.C.” who see your 401K as a cookie jar and if you haven’t noticed, with Senate Bill 1813, Sen. Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee added language to the bill to take away the over-one’s-lifetime distributions for some beneficiaries and/or contingent beneficiaries — like the retirement plan owner’s children.

      I learned Sen. Baucus has temporarily backed off, but the language is still in the bill — so let’s watch what happens. Those greedy politicians can’t stand the idea that there are several trillions out there in retirement plans and they want to take it so they can REDISTRIBUTE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Remember those who put money into their retirement plans did so based on what the Tax Code was at the time and expected it to remain the same!!!!

      Try calling your representatives in Washington,D.C. and let them know they should stay out of your 401K, 403b or TSP (for fed employees) — it is not their cookie jar–it is yours!!!

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