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401(k) plan not on track? Look in the mirror.

401(k) plans increasingly come with advice. But few 401(k) investors take advantage of it.

By Susan TomporDetroit Free Press/MCT / September 19, 2011

News of a massive stock sell-off rolls around a ticker in Times Square in New York in this file photo taken last month. Many Americans with 401(k) plans have seen them shrink this year, but they're not taking advantage of the advice that many plans now include.

John Minchillo/AP/File


Driving on the freeway one morning, I spotted a billboard that declared: "Retirement Needs a New Plan."

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The message, promoting financial services from Prudential, was right on the money and probably applies to thousands of the drivers who pass the sign knowing exactly where they are going each day but have no idea where they are likely to end up in 10 to 20 years.

Some people have never had a plan. Others need an entirely new one given the recent volatility of the stock markets, slumping home values and the pitiful job situation.

"It starts with that financial look in the mirror," said Catherine Collinson, president of the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Let's face it: Too many people stopped looking years ago.

But people do have some options. About 60 percent of 401(k) plans offer some sort of advice, according to David Wray, president of the Profit-Sharing/401(k) Council of America in Chicago.

"There was no advice back in the 1990s," Wray said.

In late August, Ford began offering online investment advice through Financial Engines, an independent financial adviser, at no cost to its employees.

Ford's plan also has target-date retirement funds that — for employees who don't want to pick their own — offer an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds based on one's age and expected retirement date.

If you want a new plan, you have to take time to get advice.

Charles Schwab said about 81 percent of 1,200 plans in its database offer advice to workers. But depending on the plan, just 10 percent to 20 percent of the people actually take advantage of the advice.

"I think that number should be much higher," said Catherine Golladay, Schwab vice president for 401(k) Participant Services.

The warning sirens are blaring on a generational storm that has been brewing for decades. But you get the feeling that all most baby boomers have done about retirement is the equivalent of stashing a few rain bonnets.

Even with some backup from Social Security, how does anyone stop working completely and live — for 15-20 years? Perhaps for 30 years or longer? What is it they say: "As long as you have your health ... "

But you still have to eat.