“Yes, hello? Is this the Human Resources Department? Yes, I’d like to file a complaint about the retirement plan offered here. No, I don’t work actually here. But still, hear me out…”

Today is my day to complain about the (somewhat) hidden costs of employer-sponsored retirement plans. These plans come in a variety of flavors like 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, and SEP-IRA, and hopefully, you have one of these available at your job.

And by the way, if you take away from today’s column that I don’t like these plans, then you missed the point. Mostly I love them. Economists and astrophysicists all agree: the only free lunch ever discovered in the known universe is employer-sponsored retirement plans with matching funds.

Unfortunately, in plans I’ve reviewed, employees often pay far too much in management fees. That overpayment is especially egregious when compared to fees that employees could pay for investments outside of their retirement plans.

There’s been a revolution over the past 10 years in lowering the costs of fund management fees. But you would not know that revolution had ever occurred, based on the plans I reviewed recently.

Here’s the crux of the problem, I think. Many plan sponsors, the companies that actually offer investments to employees, offer their service to employers for free or nearly free. Now you’re probably thinking, free sounds good. Free is the opposite of a problem. But hold on.

Free to the employer often translates into expensive to the employee. What I mean by that is that plan sponsors have to be paid some way or another for their services. If the employer gets the retirement service plan for free, then the employee probably ends up paying that much more.

A few examples best illustrate this problem.

I recently completed a consulting gig for a public entity in Texas that employs less than 100 people. The plan sponsor for their 401(a) plan, a professional and reputable non-profit, charges no money directly to the public entity. Which, again, sounds nice at first.

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