401(k) balances, contributions at record highs

IRAs, 401(k) balances and employee contributions all set records in 2016.

According to Fidelity Investments’ fourth quarter 2016 analysis, the average account balance for 401(k) plans rose to $92,500 from $90,800 in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the number of IRA accounts topped 8.5 million in 2016, with nearly 500,000 new accounts added in 2016. IRA balances dropped to $93,700 from $94,100 in the third quarter last year.

Those figures are way up from an average balance of $69,400 for both for IRAs and 401(k)s five years ago, Fidelity says.

Katie Taylor, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments, says that the market has been up and plan contributions are up, which has had a positive impact on average account balances.

“People are saving more; 401(k) loans are dropping, so we are really starting to see some behavior changes that are really positive,” she says. “People are taking the advice we’ve been giving and employers are giving in terms of saving for retirement.”

The most important thing is for investors to take a long-term view when it comes to retirement savings. Taylor says employees shouldn’t react as the market goes up and down.

The average contribution rate to 401(k)s was 8.4% of pay in 2016. That figure excludes any employer matching contribution. When that is included, the average is more than 12.5% of pay being saved for retirement. That figure has slowly risen from 8% since the third quarter of 2014, according to Fidelity.

Fidelity highlighted the uptick it saw in IRA accounts in 2016 to show that even though many people do not have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan at work, there are many taking advantage of Fidelity’s retirement savings platform.

“I think that people are engaging and taking advantage of the education and guidance that is out there, which is a good thing,” Taylor says. “I think the other piece of that is the reactiveness in which employers are adopting things within their plan that make it easy for people to get in and automate, so automatic enrollment and automatic annual increases.”

Automatic features have allowed companies to enroll a number of people into their retirement plans because many aren’t willing to opt out once they are in it. It takes advantage of participant inertia to help them do the right thing.

The entire retirement industry has been working on how to better educate people about retirement savings.

“What we know about education is that educating people works and giving guidance works, but it has to be at the right time for people to receive it,” she says.

That means targeting people who are getting new jobs or receive a salary increase every year.

“Very timely personalized communications is what really works,” Taylor says. “We are thinking about how to deal with people differently. We do more over the web or through mobile devices, and that’s reaching people where they are.”

The percentage of Fidelity account holders with an outstanding 401(k) loan dropped to 21%, the lowest level since the fourth quarter of 2009, which “is great news from our standpoint,” she says.

“Loans are something we talk about a lot. The 401(k) loan usage is something where many employers offer access to a loan in their 401(k),” Taylor continues. “They view that as a benefit within the 401(k). If you need access to this money, you can get to it, but it can be a slippery slope. Once they take one loan, they start taking multiple loans for reasons that are not critical to getting by day to day.”

Education has had a lot to do with the loan percentage dropping in 2016. Employers are making sure that plan participants realize that loans can have a negative impact on retirement savings and can be a detriment that lasts much longer than the period of the loan.

“I think the industry as a whole is more focused on overall financial wellness and helping to educate people on not just saving more but how to manage their paycheck,” Taylor says.

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