MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your Retirement Plan May Soon Make You Save More

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A growing number of 401(k)s are hiking worker contributions without asking.

Your employer may have increased the amount you save in your 401(k) plan—and you may not even know it.

One out of four 401(k) plans raised the amount that workers contribute to their plans over the past 12 months, new research by BlackRock shows. In most cases, those increases, often just 1% of pay a year, have happened through auto enrollment or auto escalation. So unless you’re closely checking your 401(k) statements, you may not have noticed. (Yes, you can opt out, but that probably would be a big mistake.)

This trend is part of a broad effort to simplify employer savings plans and improve the odds that workers will be able to afford retirement. As part of this savings push, one in five 401(k) plan sponsors have changed their default contribution rate, according to the BlackRock survey. The new rate could be higher or lower. Small employers struggling to maintain profitability might lower the default rate to cut back on matching contributions. Presumably, though, most large employers—a group that represents the vast majority of 401(k) assets—have their workers’ retirement needs in focus and are raising the rate.

The movement toward auto features and new default contribution rates underscores the recognition by employers that American workers face a savings crisis— and it reflects the growing pressure to provide solutions. More than half of workers say their employer should offer more guidance, BlackRock found.

Employers generally acknowledge this need. Yet there is “a very big disconnect” between what workers know and what their employers think they know about saving, says Anne Ackerley, head of the U.S. and Canada defined contribution group at BlackRock. For example:

  • Only 43% of plan participants say they understand their investment options, but 67% of plan sponsors believe workers understand those options.
  • Only 37% of participants know how much they should be saving, but 64% of employers believe workers know the right amount.
  • Only 35% of workers believe they are on the right track while 59% of employers believe that to be the case.

This disconnect points up the need for greater financial education at every stage of life—starting in schools, continuing at the workplace, where people make most of their critical financial decisions, and into retirement. Some 73% of workers would like guidance on how to convert their nest egg to lifetime income, BlackRock found. That is a huge number grappling with one of the most important personal financial issues of our time. “Plan sponsors know they need to convert to income but haven’t really taken the actions to do it,” says Ackerley.

Read next: Fewer Than Half of Americans Are Saving Well for Retirement

A sign of the confusion: roughly a quarter of baby boomers say they aren’t sure what to do with their 401(k) assets after retiring, a quarter plan to stay in their current plan, a quarter plan to manage the money themselves, a quarter plan to give their money to an adviser. There is no obvious strategy.

The trend toward auto enrollment is a key step. Some 62% of large employers have auto enrollment and 48% have auto escalation of contributions in 401(k) plans, according to a 2014 report from the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association. BlackRock’s findings suggest the numbers are even higher today. That’s encouraging because even a 1% increase in contributions made annually over a dozen years can lead to $1,930 of additional monthly income in retirement, Fidelity found.

Eventually, the 401(k) will be improved. But you can’t afford to wait. Mark your calendar and bump up contributions every year if auto escalation is not an option. And converting 401(k) assets to lifetime income can be as simple as using, say, 25% of your assets to purchase an immediate or deferred fixed annuity that will provide enough monthly income to cover basic living costs for life.

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