MONEY 401(k)s

Stock Gains (and Saving) Push 401(k)s to Record Highs

Staying the course has rarely paid off so well as average retirement account balances soar.

The financial crisis is so yesterday. Retirement savings accounts have never been plumper, according to a new survey of 401(k) plans and IRAs at Fidelity Investments.

At mid-year, the average 401(k) balance stood at a record $91,000, up nearly 13% from a year ago. The average IRA balance stood at $92,600, also a record, and up nearly 15% from the previous year.

These figures include all employees in a plan, even those in their first year of saving. Looking just at long-time savers the picture brightens further. Workers who had been active in a workplace retirement plan for at least 10 years had a record average balance of $246,200—a figure that has grown at an average annual rate of 15% for a decade.

Over the past year, the resurgent stock market accounted for 77% of the higher average balance in 401(k) plans, Fidelity said. Ongoing employer and employee contributions accounted for 23% of the gain. The typical worker socks away $9,590 a year—$6,050 from her own contributions and $3,540 from an employer match.

Of course, the financial crisis still weighs on many Americans. Employment has been an ongoing weak spot and wage growth has been all but non-existent. Meanwhile, those in or nearing retirement may have fallen short of their goals after losing a decade of market growth at just the wrong point in their savings cycle. Many had to sell while prices were down.

But the Fidelity data reinforces the value of steady savings over a long period. By contributing through thick and thin, savers were able to offset much of the portfolio damage from the crisis. They not only held firm and enjoyed the market’s robust recovery but also were buying shares when prices were low. They earned a spectacular return on new money put into stocks the last five years. In calendar year 2013 alone, the S&P 500 plus dividends rose 32%.

Despite continuing contributions, savings balances did not rise as fast as the S&P 500 due to plan fees, cash-outs and broad plan exposure to lower-return investments like bonds and cash. Roughly a third of job switchers do not roll over their plan savings; they take the money, often incurring taxes and penalties. The average 401(k) investor has 33% in fixed-income securities.

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