Understanding 401(k) employer costs: What are the fees?

Complex fee structures, as well as the assortment of plans available, make it difficult to identify specific costs for every 401(k) on the market. Costs of managing a plan are handled in a variety of ways. As described by the Department of Labor (DOL), plan fees are generally divided into four categories:

  • Asset-based: expenses based on the amount of assets in the plan, represented as percentages or basis points. This also usually lumps in “custodial fees.” Typically 2-3%, but they can range between 0.08%-4% of the total plan assets.
  • Per-person, or per-participant: expenses based upon the number of eligible employees or actual participants in the plan. Can range from $2 to $750+ per month per person
  • Transaction-based: expenses based on the execution of a particular plan service or transaction. They can range from $0-$70+.
  • Flat rate: fixed charge that does not vary, regardless of plan size.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get accurate average ranges for these types of fees, because as you can see, they can vary widely, and most plans charge fees based on a combination of these categories (e.g. a high per-person fee combined with a lower flat rate). 401(k) administration fees for small businesses are especially variable if you’re planning on growing to include more than 100 employees. These expenses can be charged as one-time fees as or an ongoing fee, for example, a one-time fee to start the plan or convert from one provider to another, or an ongoing monthly or annual fee to administer and manage your account (e.g., record-keeping, account manager support, fund section, account balancing, etc.) Some employers that sponsor 401(k) plans pay for everything, including investment fees and costs. Some pay for almost nothing, with fees paid out of the plan’s assets (i.e. the employees bear the burden of all of the fees). Or, in many cases, plan costs are shared by plan sponsors (the employer) and participants (employees).

Other small business 401(k) plan fees that you may want to ask about:

  • Recordkeeping fees
  • Investment management, consulting, or advisory service fees
  • Revenue sharing fees
  • Higher fees due to size of the company (smaller companies generally pay higher fees, and unfairly so)
  • If you’re a new plan, you may have to pay for an annual, legally required ERISA bond.

Don’t forget the “human cost”: depending on the HR resources you have in-house, you may want to ask if the 401(k) provides any services related to 401(k) non-discrimination testing, IRS deadlines, taxes, investment advising, payroll administration, and any help with employee questions, or if you’ll have to handle these yourself. 


The 401(k) business model and pricing

If you’re examining what it would cost to offer a 401(k), the first step is to ask the plan provider to explain how they generate revenue. Vendors with whom you want to partner will be upfront about the way they work and how they generate income by managing your investments. Specifically, ask if they receive any kickbacks or commissions based on the funds they recommend to you. 


Use a Fee Disclosure Form to collect information

Given the complexity of fee structures and schedules, begin by requesting that potential plan providers fill out a 401(k) Plan Fee Disclosure Form. This sample form provided by the DOL is a helpful tool and includes a list of possible administrative expenses, start-up expenses, termination fees, and the definition of pricing terms. Bottom line: yes, 401(k) plans cost money; however, requesting a fee schedule that details every cost will help ensure that you’re informed (rather than surprised) about the costs required.


Ask for more details

If you’re utilizing company run asset allocation funds, be sure to ask these pertinent questions:

  • Is the “Company” collecting any revenue sharing off of these allocation funds? If yes, how is this revenue being shared with the participants in the plan, or is the “Company” holding the revenue?
  • Is the fund portfolio manager internal or external (third party)? If external, what was the due diligence process and what other outside managers were considered?  How are these individuals being paid?


Seek out innovative solutions for lower 401(k) fees

Gone are the days when investors sat behind large desks in New York City offices and managed your retirement investments with paper, pen, and a calculator. Look for providers who are using technology in ways that will help you reduce overall plan costs. New and innovative providers are using technology to make retirement investment benefits a reality for startups and small businesses. While a traditional 401(k) provider might require paper payroll documents to get a plan up and running, some providers are pulling data directly from payroll systems, thereby reducing the 401(k) set-up costs, as well as administration fees. Administrative expenses include costs for service providers that collect fees from employees or directly from the employer. We wrote this article to help people critically evaluate 401(k) costs, no matter which providers you’re looking at.


Choosing the right 401(k) costs for your business

Examining 401(k) costs to employers and employees is not a simple task because of the variety of plans available and the fact that vendors make money in ways that may not be obvious. Don’t wait for plan providers to tell you what you need to know; you must ask the questions based on the fee information they provide. Then be ready to discern which plan is right for the business, and for your employees. Keep in mind that you’re looking for a cost-effective plan, but also for one that adds value. Use your research to determine if your organization is ready to offer a 401(k), and which provider can best meet your needs. Whether you’re a small business owner or the HR director for a company with hundreds of employees, you deserve a cost-effective 401(k) plan that discloses the fees and costs required to make this benefit a reality for your organization.

There are also some financial breaks small businesses can receive for starting a 401(k) plan. For example, qualified employers may receive a tax credit for the plan’s first three years. Some expenses may also qualify as deductible business expenses. Employer contributions that fall below the threshold of a certain percentage of an employee’s salary may also be exempt from federal, state, and payroll taxes.



Once you find a plan with prices that fit your budget, you’ll be able to answer in the affirmative when asked whether or not your company provides great, low-cost retirement benefits. If you’re looking for a great 401(k) for your employees, please reach out to the team of experts at First Western Bank and Trust at 701-364-9006.