FRONTLINE's The Retirement Gamble: Trailer

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For most Americans, traditional retirement is now a pipe dream: Six in 10 people believe they’ll have to delay retirement, just 14 percent are very confident they’ll be able to live comfortably once they stop working, and 17 percent believe they’ll never retire at all.

Watch The Retirement Gamble on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Who is to blame?

The Retirement Gamble, airing Tuesday, April 23, at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), is an eye-opening investigation of a financial services industry that may be draining your retirement savings with every passing year. The report features Demos Policy Analyst and retirement security expert Robert Hiltonsmith, author of The Retirement Savings Drain: Hidden & Excessive Costs of 401(k)s and Expanded Social Security: A Plan To Increase Retirement Security for All Americans

“This FRONTLINE film speaks directly to you, the consumer,” says FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith. “It will help you understand both what is happening to your retirement money, and, most importantly, the questions you should be asking before investing it.”

Here are some key facts about 401(k)s from Hiltonsmith's illuminating report The Retirement Savings Drain, featured in FRONTLINE:


  • According to our fee model, a two-earner household, where each partner earns the median income for their gender each year over their working lifetime, will pay an average of $154,794 in 401(k) fees and lost returns.
  • A higher-income dual-earner household, one where each partner earns an income greater than three-quarters of Americans each year can expect to pay an even steeper price: (as much as) $277,969.


  • The median expense ratio of mutual funds in 401(k) plans was 1.27 percent in 2010.
  • Trading costs vary from year to year, but have been estimated to average approximately 1.2 percent a year as well.
  • In the long run, the average mutual fund earns a 7 percent return, before fees, matching the average return of the overall stock market. However, the post-fee returns average only 4.5 percent, meaning that, on average, fees eat up over a third of the total returns earned by mutual funds. 
  • Smaller 401(k) plans have higher average fees than larger ones. The median expense ratio for plans with less than 100 participants was 1.29 percent, while for plans with more than 10,000 participants, it was 0.43 percent.


  • Expense Ratio Fees: This ratio incorporates the administrative, investment management, and marketing fees charged to savers. Because these fees do not vary much from year to year, they are reported as a static expense ratio and listed both in a retirement plan’s summary documents and the individual prospectuses of each mutual fund in the plan.
  • Trading Fees: The costs incurred by a mutual fund when buying and selling the securities (bonds, stocks, etc.) that comprise the fund’s underlying assets. Investment managers of mutual funds pay a fee each time they buy or sell one of the securities that comprise the underlying assets of the fund, and they pass these on to savers via the funds’ share prices. Trading fees vary from year to year depending on the frequency with which fund managers buy and sell the funds’ assets.