Having access to a 401(k) plan can significantly improve your retirement outlook, particularly if your employer offers a matching contribution. Surprisingly, fewer than half of workers in the private sector participate in their employer’s 401(k) or a similar defined contribution plan. Among employees who do contribute to their 401(k), it’s estimated that one in four are leaving $1,336 on the table annually by not contributing enough to get the full employer match. 

While many Americans aren’t fully realizing their 401(k)’s potential, new data from Fidelity suggests some clearly are. Fidelity’s most recent quarterly retirement analysis has 401(k) balances hitting an all-time high of $95,500.     

Why 401(k) Balances Are Climbing

Between the fourth quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, 401(k) balances increased by $3,000. Part of the increase can be attributed to positive performance in the stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has been on a steady climb since the election, moving from 18,256.57 in mid-November to just shy of 21,000 points as of mid-May.  

The other factor contributing to the increase in 401(k) assets is that workers are saving more in their plans. According to Fidelity, the total savings rate – which includes individual contributions and employer contributions – hit a record 12.9% in the first quarter of 2017. Over the past 12 months, a record 27% of workers increased their individual 401(k) savings rate. 

While the uptick in savings rates may be due to a more conscientious effort on the part of workers to fund a secure retirement, there’s something else that could be driving this trend: auto-escalation. This feature allows workers to automatically step up their contribution rate annually. Approximately 32% of defined contribution plans offer auto-escalation as an option.      

According to Fidelity, auto-escalation is behind 50% of the savings increases among the 27% of workers who stepped up their savings rate over the previous 12 months. During the first quarter, 68% of the savings rate increases among workers aged 30 or younger were attributed to the auto-escalation feature. (For more, see: 401(k) Auto-Enrollment: The Best Savings Plan.)     

Fidelity’s data also showed that workers are funneling away more cash into their Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) and their Health Savings Accounts (HSA). Seventeen percent more Fidelity customers contributed to their IRA in the first quarter of 2017, compared to the same period last year, and the amount being contributed increased by 38%. The number of workers saving in both a 401(k) and an HSA rose by 21% between 2014 and 2016. Workers who saved in both accounts simultaneously have a higher savings rate compared to those who save in a 401(k) alone. (See: How to Use Your HSA for Retirement.

How to Make the Most of Your 401(k)

If you have a 401(k) through your employer but your balance is lower than you’d like it to be, there are some steps you can take to increase your savings. First, check with your plan administrator to see if auto-escalation is an option. If so, you can elect to enroll and set your contributions to increase annually. Raising contributions by just one percentage point per year could make a substantial difference in your balance over time, especially if those increases coincide with an annual raise. (See: How to Put Your Pay Raise to Work.) 

If auto-escalation isn’t an option, check your current retirement contribution rate to determine whether you’re saving enough to get the company match. If not, then raising your contributions up to at least qualify for the full match is a priority. From there, you can examine your budget to determine how much more of your monthly income you can afford to save.

Finally, consider rounding out your retirement strategy with an IRA or Health Savings Account if you have a high deductible health insurance plan. While the annual contribution limits for these plans are lower than what’s allowed with a 401(k), they both offer a tax-advantaged way to grow your nest egg.  

The Bottom Line

The growth in 401(k) balances is encouraging but other research shows that Americans still have a lot of work to do to achieve a secure retirement. One in three Americans has yet to begin saving for the future. If you’ve got a 401(k) through your employer, making sure that you’re fully utilizing all of its features and maximizing every savings opportunity can help you create a more comfortable financial outlook. 

 

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