How Often Should I Check my 401(k)?

If you’re saving for retirement in a 401 K plan, it’s probably up to you to manage the money in your account.  This responsibility can be intimidating, and you might not know where to begin.  Furthermore, you get a lot of mixed signals: some people say that you should keep a long-term perspective, while others suggest that you need to constantly and actively “manage” your savings.  So what’s the deal – how often should you check your 401 K?

Short answer: for most long-term investors, once or twice a year is plenty. The closer you get to using the money (within two to three years of retirement, for example), the more you should check – just to make sure your plan is solid.

Who Are You?

The answer depends on who you are as an investor.  At the risk of oversimplifying, let’s break the universe of investors down into two types: long-term investors, and active traders.  If you’re looking for information on active trading, you’ve come to the wrong place-this article is directed at those who believe in long-term investing.  Long-term investing might also be referred to as “plain-vanilla” or “textbook” investing.

For long-term investors, there is not much needed to check your account regularly as long as you have done a good job of setting up the account.  If you have a well-diversified portfolio and you did a good job of picking investments, you might only need to check on your account once every 6 to 12 months.  For the most part, you want to make sure that you’re taking the right level of risk in your account.  Do you have the right amount in stocks vs. bonds?  Do you have a reasonable amount invested overseas?  Has the makeup of your account changed dramatically, and do you now need to re-balance back to the investment mix that you if originally intended to use?

For more details, see How to Review your 401k.

Major Financial Life Events

It’s also a good idea to check on your accounts when something major happens.  Not necessarily something major in the markets, although many people (understandably) can’t resist looking when the headlines are full of news about the markets.  A better reason to check on your accounts is because something has changed in your life.  Perhaps you’ve lost your job, inherited money, or found out about a health issue that you might need money for in the near future.  Those life events may come as a surprise to you, and you probably didn’t take them into account when you chose your existing investments.  As a result, you may need to make some adjustments.

As you get closer to retirement, it makes sense to check in on your accounts a little more often.  However, there’s no point in looking every week or driving yourself crazy (because that’s exactly what you’ll do).  You’ll just want to pay a little more attention to your accounts to make sure that you are properly transitioning from the phase of your life where you accumulate money to a phase of your life where you will spend that money.


With certain types of investments, you hardly need to do any maintenance on your accounts.  These investments are often called “asset allocation” funds.  They might also be called Target-Date funds, lifestyle funds, life cycle funds, or something else.  These funds do the rebalancing for you, and they might even automatically get more conservative as you grow older.  Of course, you can never trust anything to run completely on autopilot, so it’s still a good idea to take a look at these investments from time to time and make sure that they do what you think they’re supposed to do.