What's Not OK to Say About My 401(k)

You wouldn't think that retirement savings could be a touchy subject ... any yet ... someone said something to me last week that's got me hoppin' mad. (Think Clark-Grisworld-finally-reaching-Walley-World-only-to-discover-it's-closed crazy.)

Anyone who's been laid off and left behind a 401(k) knows he or she has several options:
  • Keep it where it is if the balance is more than a certain amount
  • Transfer it to an IRA
  • Roll it into your new employer's 401(K) (Should you be lucky enough to get another job, especially one with a retirement plan)
  • Cash out (but prepare to lose 20 percent right off the top in taxes and more in penalties)
So far I've left behind two 401(k)s from two different employers. Now combined, I still don't have enough to buy a tricked-out Buick but that isn't stopping financial advisers from calling (read: stalking) me.

A little more than a month ago, a woman phoned from a company to which I'd just sent my husband's resume. I answered eagerly, thinking, "Phew, finally, something big is about to happen!" Sadly, she was simply calling to sell me an annuity, which, unlike chin hair and lower back pain, is something I'm still too young to enjoy.

Thinking I could dissuade her from trying to get her paws on my fortune (which basically amounts to whatever coins I find rolling around the floor of my van) I told her I was recently laid off. Even through the phone, I could almost hear the "cha-ching" as cartoon dollar signs popped into her eyes.

"Well, you must have left behind a 401(k)!" she squealed with delight.

Yes, along with a chunk of my dignity and most of the hope I'd maintained for not working in a mall food court well into my 90s, I did leave behind about $8,000.

This lady was all over it! When could I meet? She'd come to me! What about my husband? She'd manage his assets as well!!

Ugh. I was finally able to shake her, and let me tell you, that wasn't easy. (Think screaming, clingy child-on-the-first-day-of nursery-school tenacious.)

Fast forward a few weeks, I see a friend and neighbor, who, after being laid off more than a year ago, chose to pursue a career in - you guessed it - financial planning.

Like an idiot, I mentioned to him that I was thinking about rolling over these two accounts.

"We should talk," he said, sounding casual enough. Now this man knows that I used to have my brokerage license and that I've done some financial reporting. Heck, my first "real" job was as a benefits representative in a 401(k) department! And while I'm not saying I'm Suze Orman, I'm not using an abacus to balance my checkbook either.

So, last week, when he was continuously texting me, trying to pin me down to a time to meet, I replied, "Let me just get my paperwork together and get back to you."

Here's where it gets interesting:  Not only did he then imply that I didn't know where these accounts were, he suggested that in order to find them, I should check with my husband. Oh, no, you didn't!

Oh, yes, he did! Wow, is that a way to not get business or what? Was I just catapulted back in time to the 1950s? (And if so, can I get a cigarette and a dry martini, please?)

As strange as it sounds, I've been sensitive about the whole 401(k) subject for a while now. Unfortunately, the stay-at-home-mother business doesn't offer that benefit, and if it did, I'm sure my company match would be doled out in Fudgsicles. How can you not be uptight when the media continuously alerts you to the fact that you will need millions to retire? Not to mention all the statistics that imply your golden years will be filled with a myriad of health issues that will cost you more on top of that?

So, now I feel upset with myself because all along I've known what to do-roll these accounts into an IRA and manage it myself-but I've been too lazy and too indifferent to take action. But his words "check with your husband" have had a galvanizing effect.

Tomorrow, I'm going to call these financial institutions (yes, I know which ones they are) submit to their wacky security questions and tell them my dad's middle name and whether he wears boxers or briefs (because I recalling my user names and passwords is more challenging than remembering world capitals), and I'm going to transfer some funds, people.

Granted, the sum is just under what you'd need to feed a family of four for a month if you shopped at Whole Foods, but still, I earned that money. And I'm certain my husband will approve.


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