How I Rolled Over My 401Ks by Doing Everything Wrong

You’ll have to make a lot of phone calls.

Photo: Fabiola Sola Penna

I love New Year’s resolutions and gave myself a handful last year. Some were concrete and required a lot of effort, but were achievable (“run two half marathons”). Some were well-intentioned but so abstract that I didn’t mind they were unachievable (“don’t care so much about things that don’t matter”). Some were kind of dumb (“buy vitamins” — the resolution wasn’t to take the vitamins, just to buy them. If anyone wants a mostly full jar of iron supplements, hit me up). And one ended up haunting me for months: the resolution to roll over my old 401(k)s into my current one.

A short ways into my career, I started saving within my company’s 401(k): about $2,900 in total. A year later, I changed jobs. I opened another 401(k) at the new job and amassed an additional $2,600, but did nothing with the old 401(k). A year and a half later, I changed jobs again, because I am a millennial. We millennials love changing jobs so much. And I opened yet another 401(k) at my (still) current job.

At this point I felt like a dog who had buried some very small bones in a large yard. I wanted my bone pile all in one place, because compound interest would treat a larger bone pile much better than a few small bone piles, but in order to do that I was going to have to fill out forms, and call people, and ugh. Generally, I would rather physically dig holes in a yard than call people on the phone.

But I did it! So here is how my 401(k) rollover process went, and all of the things that I did wrong along the way.

Step 1: Procrastinate

I emailed my new job’s benefits manager in August to kick off the rollover party. At this point I understood that I needed to provide the old accounts — which were, thankfully, at least both at the same financial company (Transamerica) — with information from the new account so they could send over the money. I asked the manager for this mysterious information — my “account number” and the new financial institution’s mailing address, things that were strangely not available anywhere online. The manager sent me a form I needed to fill out to make the rollover happen. I looked at the word salad and the blank boxes on the form, and then I did…nothing. For four months.

In 2010, the New Yorker published a fantastic article about procrastination that opens with an anecdote about a Nobel prize-winning economist who takes eight months to send a friend’s package from India to the U.S. I related to this person deeply. “Roll over 401(k)” was on my to-do list every day for four months. Every day I looked at it and ignored it. Money-related task + forms + phone calls = I will not do it.

Step 2: Ignore Professional Advice

In December, with the end of the year looming and the resolution unchecked, I was ready to take another crack at the rollover. I read the form my benefits manager had sent me four months ago more carefully — it was a lot of basic personal information I needed to fill out, and the instructions implied I’d be sending the form to my current company’s 401(k) institution along with a check from my old 401(k)s. But…how would I get the check?

Rather than bother the poor benefits manager again, I decided to take matters into my own hands and tried to extract a check with the money from my old 401(k)s at Transamerica myself. This involved searching through a vast library of forms on the Transamerica website, choosing one, trying to decipher it, filling it out in really neat handwriting, and hoping for the best. This was the first step that complicated the process: willfully ignoring the people who actually know how to do this stuff and trying to be some kind of inept financial detective instead.

Also, I called my current 401(k) institution, ADP, at some point along the way and they told me to have Transamerica issue my check to ADP’s bank, but send the check directly to me so I could pass it on with a filled-out rollover form. I listened to all of this and nodded and yet still had no concrete idea of how to acquire this mystical check.

I ended up asking our benefits manager again because this rogue Transamerica form asked for a signature from a plan administrator in order to get my check. The manager took a look at the form he was supposed to sign, and told me that the form I’d dredged up from the financial information superhighway was designed to roll money into my old accounts, not out. Very smart. Very efficient.

Step 3: Be Unprepared

The manager told me I needed to call Transamerica directly and have them send me the check. Yes, that is all I had to do to get my money: call Transamerica, and ask nicely. I had all the information I thought I needed ready to go. I left my office on a chilly night, called Transamerica and asked, basically, “Can I have my money please?” They told me sure, absolutely. When I gave them my address, they told me they couldn’t send the check to my address. It’d have to go straight to ADP. Did I have ADP’s address handy? No I did not.

At this point I heaved a mighty and uncontrollable sigh into the phone. Remember when William Blake wrote the poem about holding infinity in the palm of your hand? I held infinity in the whoosh of that sigh. The customer service agent seemed to understand, and was very sorry I’d spent so long listening to their call-waiting music before realizing I didn’t have the information I needed. The second mangling of the process: not sitting down in a warm room with a computer to do all of this. Just because life has given us granola bars and handheld computers doesn’t mean you can do everything “on the go.”

Step 4: Worry

Eventually, I found the needed address. I had everything. Account numbers, addresses. Correct payee name. The checks!!! I had the checks. Well, I didn’t have them have them. The Transamerica person assured me the virtual money would soar through the air and land softly in my ADP account. But! I also had to fill out the rollover form, that form the benefits manager sent me in the first place, four long months ago. And the form specifically said on it that if it arrived at ADP without a corresponding check, it would be useless and likewise, if a check arrived without the form. I called ADP again and they said that they’d do their best to “hold” the check if the form didn’t arrive at the exact same time. I sent in the form and waited. I became convinced that this separation of check and form was going to be the end of my money, that it would scatter in the wind like dandelion seeds. It felt very strange to worry so much about money that, if life goes to plan, I won’t be touching for decades and decades.

Step 5: Succeed Anyway

I checked my old and new account balances every day. A few days before the new year, one account zapped to a $0 balance, then the other, and the money appeared in my current account soon after. As if by magic! Only it wasn’t magic. It was phone calls and very helpful customer service people and the repeated sending of my Social Security number out into the ether. And, heck, a little bit of magic; the thing about these financial transactions is that no matter how much or little work goes into making them happen (and it’s never a little, it’s usually a lot), it still feels like pure alchemy to me.

So if there’s anything to learn from this endeavor, it is to listen to the people who are telling you to do the thing the way you’re supposed to do it. Yes, there was a lot of conflicting information between employers and financial institutions. Yes, I spent a lot of time hearing the sort of warm acoustic guitar music that money companies love using as their hold music. But the sage advice of people whose job it is to make these transactions happen was what made the transaction happen. Salute your experts. Here’s to more exhuming and depositing of financial bones in 2017.

Molly Mary O’Brien is a writer and video producer living in Brooklyn. She didn’t know what a 401K even was until she worked for a finance company. Follow her on twitter: @missmollymary

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