How to time your IRA rollover

I was recently asked if it is a good idea to roll over a 401(k) into an IRA while the market is still down, or if it would be better to wait until the market comes back up to its previous levels.

There are a couple ways I could answer this question. One is, “sure, if you want to.” Another is, “no, not unless you want to.” In other words, the timing of rolling your 401(k) to IRA actually does not matter.

I knew a wise and successful investor who, whenever asked to predict what the market might do, would always respond with, “it will fluctuate.” And that fluctuation has no bearing on whether you should use an IRA or a 401(k).

In fact, having generated thousands of retirement projections myself (and overseen hundreds, if not thousands, of once-in-a-lifetime decisions) I would say that trying to coordinate your decisions with the behavior of “the market” is a fool’s errand.

The mechanics of a 401(k) and an IRA are nearly identical. These are simply vehicles through which you invest your money. Granted, employer 401(k) plans are often (extremely) limited in their investment options, while an IRA will not have that issue. But any given mutual fund or stock will perform identically in either type of account.

All that being said… I can see why retirement-savers would worry about the timing of a rollover. The idea of beating or timing the market is so popular that it is easy to view timing any investment decision as more important than it really is.

But again — the market does what it wants when it wants, and we can neither control nor predict that. For most investors, attempts to time the market are a waste of time and mental energy, not to mention money.

So when it comes to timing your rollover, I encourage you to focus more on those factors that you have more knowledge and/or control over: your savings timeline, risk exposure, short-term cash needs, overall retirement goals, etc. etc. etc.

To see why these considerations are more relevant, it might be helpful to review some of the key differences between IRAs and employer-managed plans. Bear in mind that the below graphic is from eighteen months ago, so some dollar amounts will have changed.

In short, if moving your money from 401(k) to IRA is the right move for your financial plan, then do it! No need to make things more complicated than they really are.