Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I want a new acronym (or, Goodbye 401k, Hello IRA)

Two days before last month's cat trauma hit and most of my organizational planning ground to a temporary halt, I did manage to do what I'd promised to: Convert two abandoned 401(k) accounts (one each for me and David) into IRAs. Total elapsed workflow time: two weeks.

I could have left the accounts alone, or rolled my old 401(k) into my new one, but I wanted IRAs because I'd learned that you can withdraw up to $10,000 from them penalty-free (you'll still owe taxes) for a first-time real-estate purchase, which we may want to do at some point.

Initially, I'd planned to pick a financial provider and consolidate as many accounts as possible in one place. Technically there's no reason I shouldn't do that -- each of our accounts is well under FDIC insurance limits, and they're all housed at big financial services companies that are pretty unlikely to fail or seriously screw up. Plus, most of the money in the accounts is invested in mutual funds, which ought to tangibly own the underlying securities. If the brokerage makes a mistake or rips off the money, there's SPIC protection. That's a lot of backup.

And yet, still. With everything that's gone on in recent months with financal debacles, it felt like diversification would be a good idea. On the unlikely chance something goes wrong, not having all our retirement money parked at one company feels like a wise move. Besides, with my financial-services track record, my provider collapsing or my money being sucked out by hacker thieves doesn't seem so farfetched.

So I opted to set up an IRA for David at Vanguard, where his 401(k) already was, and I moved my old JPMorgan 401(k) to an IRA at Fidelity, the company that houses my current 401(k).

Doing David's was super-straightforward. He'd never registered with Vanguard's website, so I signed up and created his account there. After you do that for the first time, the site won't let you move money for seven days. I waited out the week, then went through the site's wizard-like steps for rolling a 401(k) to an IRA and reallocating the balance. If you want to keep your allocations exactly as they were for your 401(k), you can do that with one click. In total, the whole thing took me about 20 minutes (plus the one-week wait).

Because I was doing a transfer, mine was trickier. Fidelity let me open a rollover IRA online. But to get the cash into the account, I had to call JPMorgan to arrange a termination and transfer.

Calling JPMorgan revealed the sad truth behind the phantom vesting I'd been accumulating each year. Sure enough, it happened because my old company never actually told JPMorgan I'd left. To move my 401(k), they had to go back to the company and confirm my termination date -- and once they'd done that, poof went my two years of extra vesting. Drat.

JPMorgan took a week to sort that out, and then my account was free for transfer. To clean out my balance, JPMorgan sent me a check, payable to Fidelity Management Trust Company. Because the check was made out to Fidelity, not me, it was for my full balance -- no tax withholding that I'd later have to try to claw back.

It was extremely weird getting a check in the mail totaling about six months of my after-tax pay. It's definitely the largest check of "mine" I've ever held. Even though the check was bank-paper and not cash, walking around with it for a day was disconcerting. Reluctant to drop it back in the mail, I took advantage of Fidelity's Investor Centers to deposit it in person -- Fidelity has a branch right in the building I occasionally work out of.

Setting up David's IRA investment choices was easy; Vanguard's allocation options looked just like those I was used to from funding and allocating 401(k) contributions. Fidelity's, not so much. The interface looks more like what I'd imagine a traditional brokerage interface looks like. Instead of picking from a small batch of preselected mutual-fund options, I need to tell it what stocks or funds I want my IRA money invested in.

In the face of all these choices, I keep freezing up. I haven't yet summoned the willpower to work out what to do next, so for the moment, I am being an extremely bad long-term investor and leaving the giant lump sum parked in a "Fidelity Cash Reserves" account.

Oh well, it's not like stocks have done anything dramatic in recent weeks, right?