The maximum annual participant contribution to 401(k) plans has increased for 2012 but employees may not be aware of it, according to a recent Fidelity Investments survey.

The Internal Revenue Service announced last fall that it was raising the maximum contribution to $17,000 in 2012, up from the $16,500 limit in 2011. Additional catch-up contributions for participants age 50 or older remain at $5,500 per year, in addition to the $17,000.

Yet more than two-thirds (69%) of respondents to the Fidelity survey did not know the IRS had bumped up the contribution limit for 2012. And of those who did, only a quarter of them (26%) said they knew by how much. When these respondents were then asked what the new maximum limit would be in 2012, only one-in-five (20%) got it right.

For employers, the increased limit is an educational opportunity, says Beth McHugh, vice president, market insights, with Fidelity. "Educate and remind employees of the limit and that they can increase their savings and look at optimizing their savings rate," she says. "Whether you hit the limit or are just looking to maximize the employer contribution, it's always good to reinforce the savings message."

For employees, the increased limit is an opportunity to take advantage of more tax-deferred savings, says McHugh.

"As we know, there's a small percentage of the population that actually does hit that limit on an annual basis but for those who are doing everything they can to maximize their savings - and it's often those who are older, in their peak earning years - they can look at their deferral rate and make sure they are adjusting that," she says.

In other survey news, research from Ameriprise Financial shows that men and women are preparing for retirement in very different ways. Understanding how men and women think differently about retirement could help plan sponsors tailor their education efforts.

While men outpace women in planning for the financial aspects of retirement (77% vs. 72%), women are more likely to say they've thought about what they'd like to do during retirement.

And though a mere 22% of Americans report confidence in reaching their retirement goals, men are more likely than women to report this sentiment (25% vs. 19%).

"Financial preparation can help instill confidence in reaching your retirement goals - and rightfully so - but thinking about how you'd like to spend your time and where you're going to live can have a dramatic impact on your overall readiness," says Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial. "The activities you plan to pursue during retirement will likely have associated expenses. Failing to consider these can have significant consequences."

More than half of men (54%) report setting aside money in their own investments (such as stocks and IRAs) compared to 46% of women who say they've done the same.

Women are more likely to report that family and health take a prominent role in their planning. Women are significantly more likely than men to say they plan to spend more time with family during retirement (41% vs. 34%) and that proximity to family is a very important factor in determining where they will retire (40% vs. 27%).

Women also report a greater emphasis on maintaining their health as they age. More than half (54%) are making plans to ensure they stay healthy during retirement, compared to 48% of men, and women are more likely to rate access to health care options and facilities as a very important factor to consider when deciding where to retire (38% vs. 32%).

While men and women are preparing differently, they both may be dramatically underestimating how long they'll need to live on their retirement savings. Those surveyed estimate that they'll spend approximately 17 years in retirement while most financial professionals recommend accumulating enough savings for a 30-year retirement.

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