If you've been stashing away money in a 401(k) retirement plan, you probably feel a bit richer right now.
The average 401(k) balance climbed 18% in 2013 to $101,650, a new record, according to a report by Vanguard, which is scheduled to be released tomorrow. That's an increase of 80% over the past five years.
The median 401(k) balance -- which may better reflect the typical worker -- is far lower, just $31,396. (Looking at the median, the middle value in a group of numbers, minimizes the statistical impact of a few high-income, long-term savers who can skew the averages.) Still, median balances rose 13% last year, and over five years, they're also up by 80%. All of which suggests that rank-and-file employees are building bigger nest eggs.
That's the good news. Now for the downside. Those rising 401(k) balances are mostly the result of the impressive gains that stocks have chalked up during the bull market, now in its sixth year. (The typical saver currently holds 71% in stocks vs. 66% in 2012.) Why is that a negative? Because at some point stocks will enter negative territory again, and all those 401(k) balances will suffer a setback.
Meanwhile, the amount that workers are actually contributing to their plans remains stuck at an average of 7% of pay, which is down slightly from the peak of 7.3% in 2007. And nearly one of four workers didn't contribute at all, which has been a persistent trend.
Ironically, the savings decline is largely a side-effect of automatic enrollment, which puts workers in 401(k)s unless they specifically opt out. More than half of all 401(k) savers were brought in through auto-enrollment in 2013. These plans usually start workers at a low savings rates, often 3% or less. Unless the plan automatically increases their contributions over time—and many don't—workers tend to stick with that initial savings rate.
Still, when you include the employer match—typically another 3% of pay—a total of 10% of compensation is going into the average worker's plan, says Jean Young, senior research analyst at Vanguard. That's not bad. But most people need to save even more—as much as 15% of pay to ensure a comfortable retirement, according to many financial advisers. (To see how much you should be putting away, try the retirement savings calculator at AARP.)
Even if 401(k) providers haven't managed to get people to step up their savings rate, they are tackling the problem of investing right. More workers are being enrolled in, or opting for, target-date retirement funds, which give you an all-in-one asset allocation and gradually shift to become more conservative as you near retirement. Some 55% of Vanguard savers hold target-date funds—and for 30%, a target fund is their only investment.
With target-date funds, as well as managed accounts (which are run by investment advisers) and online tools, more 401(k) savers are also receiving financial guidance, which may improve their returns. As a recent study by Financial Engines and AonHewitt found, 401(k) savers who used their plan's investing advice between 2006 and 2012 earned median annual returns that were three percentage points higher than those with do-it-yourself allocations.
Vanguard's data found smaller differences. Still, over the five years ending in 2013, target-date funds led with median annual returns of 15.3% vs just 14% for do-it-yourselfers.
The lessons for investors: You're better off choosing your own 401(k) savings rate, and try to put away more than 10% of pay. And if you aren't ready to manage your own fund portfolio, opting for a target-date fund can be a wise move.