NerdWallet underlies its findings with a report by public policy organization Demos from last summer, which added the further frightening fact that among folks investing in 401(k) plans, a full two-thirds had no idea they were payinganything at all for their 401(k) (which actually makes all of the folks who guessed wrong in NerdWallet's poll look pretty smart by comparison).
U.S. Census Bureau figures put the average household income in America today at just a hair over $50,000. Demos' report, however, shows that over the course of an investing lifetime, an average two-income family in the U.S. could spend as much as $155,000 paying the fees that managers charge for running the funds that make up your 401(k). How does this happen? It's quite simple, really. When you invest in your company's 401(k), unless you keep the money in cash (and with cash yielding less than 1 percent today, good luck with that), what you're usually doing is buying various mutual funds that are held within your 401(k) account.
The 401(k) industry says expense ratios across all funds averaged about 0.78 percent in 2011. And according to Demos' calculations, deducting these fees year after year, every year, over the course of an investing lifetime, drags down the returns from investing in 401(k)s by the aforementioned $155,000.
That's a bit more than three years' salary for most Americans.