Will you ever put a penny in your 401k again?

I stuck my neck out, and made a candid admission; as expected, I copped a little flak – after all, I admitted to the world that I don’t even know how much is in my own Retirement Accounts 😉 Whoo boy!

What surprised me is that I didn’t lose readers … I even gained some; Josh pointed to the reason why in his comment to that post:

Controversial? This article was absolutely controversial and that’s why I come here. If you want extraordinary results you need to make controversial moves, a.k.a “taking risk”.

Thanks, Josh. Here’s how I see it:

I’m not a risk-taker, far from it … to me, the so-called controversial move is usually not “a.k.a. taking risk” …

… blindly following Conventional Wisdom can be the riskiest move of all because you may unwittingly be risking a good proportion of your financial future!

To prove my point, and (hopefully) change the way that you look at investing in your 401k forever, let’s take this example from another comment to that same post, by Alex:

This strikes me, in a good way. I am about to be eligible for the 401k at my company. Normal people who cannot think of anything else better (and safer) than sticking their money in the funds.

Correct me if I’m wrong, what you are really saying is: instead of saving diligently and sticking $30,000 into a fund, maybe that same $30,000 can be used as a down payment for a rental property that will both appreciate and generate cash flow.

Now, I cannot advise Alex – or anybody else – on what to do with their money … that’s the job of financial advisers.

But, isn’t it Rule # 1 of Personal Finance to FIRST PUT YOUR MONEY IN THE 401K TO GET THE COMPANY MATCH?

After all, isn’t that FREE MONEY?

If the employer matches your entire contribution, aren’t you getting a 100+% return on your investment … impossible to match anywhere else?

Absolutely, which is why almost every personal finance writer (be it books, magazines, or blogs) recommends to at least invest to the limit of your employer’s matching contribution …

…. except for one problem, this thinking doesn’t hold up to scrutiny!

You see, your money is in the 401K for the long-run (isn’t it?) … your contribution – and your employer’s match is only a Year One issue; over the long run, your Contribution (with the employer’s match) will tend to a much, much lower return.

Alex’s question is: will that $30,000 be better off in the 401k or in a rental property?

The only way to find out is to run some numbers over the expected life of your ‘plan’ to see what happens … fortunately, just like a cooking show, I have prepared the numbers for you and here are some very interesting results:

SCENARIO # 1 – Assumptions

A. Let’s simply take Alex’s question ‘as is’ i.e. make a one-off $30,000 contribution to the employer’s 401k:

We will assume that the employer is VERY GENEROUS and match 100% of the entire $30,000; and we will assume that the markets are equally generous and compound an 8% return for us – tax free – for 30 years.

B. Alternatively, we can put that entire $30,000 as a 20% deposit against a $150,000 house; and we will assume that it’s value increases by a more conservative 6% (also compound) each year. We will also assume that Capital Gains Tax (15%) is payable.

SCENARIO # 1 – Results

1. We know that in Year 1, the employer’s 100% match provides a 100% return on the 401k; but, in year two that return drops to 58% (the employer’s $30,000 ‘match’ effectively becomes a $15,000 ‘return’ over each of the two years … then add the 8% Net Managed Fund Return).

This rate drops each year – because we are looking for the equivalent compound return, it drops fast – so that it only takes 9 years for the overall compound return to drop below 20% and by Year 18 through to Year 30, it averages a compound return of ‘just’ 11% – 12%; still almost twice real-estate, though!

2. The total amount available to cash out of the 401k at the end of the 30 years is $559,000

3. However, if the entire $30,000 was used as a deposit on real-estate, even with a 15% Capital Gains tax on any increase, the total 30 year Capital Return will be $713,000.

That’s a 28% advantage by putting the $30,000 into real-estate instead of the 401K …

… a greater overall $ return even though the % growth was half that of the 401k!

How can this be so?

The power of leverage (we borrowed 80% on the real-estate and nothing on the 401K except for the employer’s Year 1 ‘match’).

But, wait, there’s more!

The property is an investment property (if you choose to live in it, simply figure that you pay yourself a ‘market rent’ and these conclusions still hold true) … so, we can assume:

That we fix the mortgage at 5.25% (that’s $8,000 a month), and average a 5% rental return based on current market value (means that our ending-rent grows to nearly $36,000 a year!), and assume that 25% of rents will go towards expenses (other than the mortgage) and vacancies (a useful Rule of Thumb).

4. The net income (with any ‘surplus’ over mortgage and expenses being held on CD at a 30 year average of just 5%) is an additional $217,000 for the real-estate option.

Taken together, here’s how it looks:

 Total Return:       
 401k   $    559,036  CGT+Income   CGT Only  
 Real-Estate   $    930,476 66% 28%

So Alex, by (a) forgoing the exceedingly generous employer match in your 401k and (b) putting that $30,000 into a pretty tame residential real-estate investment instead, your overall 30 year return increases by 66%

Now, this is not how the ‘real-world’ usually works:

We don’t usually invest in one lump sum … we usually make annual contributions to our 401k of 10% – 20% of our salary. So, how does The Alex Plan work under this ‘real world’ scenario?

Let’s see …

 SCENARIO # 2 – Assumptions

A. Let’s adjust Alex’s question to instead make an annual contribution of 10% of an assumed annual salary of $50,000 (4% inflation-adjusted, so that the contributions also increase by 4% each year)  to the employer’s 401k:

We will assume that the employer will remain generous and 100% match the employee’s contribution each year; and we will assume that the markets are very generous and compund an 8% return for us – tax free – for 30 years.

B. Alternatively, we can simply put each year’s contribution in a bank account (earning a paltry average of 5% over the entire 30 year period):

When we save around $30,000 [Year 6] , we take that money out of the bank as use it as a 20% deposit against a $150,000 house; and we will assume that it’s value increases by 6% (also compound) each year. We will also assume that Capital Gains Tax is payable.

Once be buy the house, out bank account is depleted, but we are still saving 10% of the employee’s salary, so we start to build the bank account up again … of course, similar properties get more expensive, so we wait until we have saved around $38,000 [Year 11] as 20% deposit and buy our SECOND property … then we repeat: saving around $46,000 [Year 16] for property THREE, and around $56,000 [Year 21] for property FOUR and final.

Why final? Well, we are within 10 years of retirement, so the BEST PLACE for our final 9 year’s worth of annual contributions is probably the 401k … 9 years is simply not long enough to chance the property market (for this reason, we could even be really conservative and also forgo the purchase of the 4th property).

SCENARIO # 2 – Results

1. The numbers are too complicated to measure the effect of the employer’s match on the hypothetical return … but, the overall numbers are far more important.

2. The total amount available to cash out of the 401k at the end of the 30 years is now $1.8 Million (now, you know why you want to make annual contributions to your investment plan!).

3. With the purchase/s of the 4 properties (the last of which we hold for just 10 years), even with a 15% Capital Gains tax on any increase, the total 30 year Capital Return on the FOUR properties (plus the final 9 years of 401k savings) PLUS the net income for each of the FOUR properties, will be $2.4 Million.

That’s a 32% advantage by putting 10% of your salary into real-estate instead of the 401K …

 Total Return:   
 401k   $  1,833,746  CGT+Income 
 Real-Estate   $  2,412,898 32%

Before you say, well 32% is just too much work to worry about … you’re not thinking like a millionaire. Over the 20 years, you will have built up enough equity in properties #1, #2, and probably #3 to also purchase properties #5, # 6 and possibly #7. And, so it goes until rich …

So, Alex, will you invest in your 401k? If you have a lump sum … I’d guess definitely not?

But, for your long-term savings plan: the 401k is certainly more convenient … but, is that convenience ‘worth’ $600,000 (or – a lot – more!) to you?

That’s only a choice that you – and, aspiring followers of The Alex Plan – can make 🙂