MONEY 401(k)s

Americans Left $24 Billion in Retirement Money on the Table Last Year

stacks of cash on table
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

The average worker is missing out on more than $1,300 a year. Make sure to get your share.

Personal savings rose last year, as conscientious workers reined in their spending. But a smaller portion of those savings were stashed in employer-sponsored retirement plans, new research shows. This and other recent findings suggest that the much-vaunted 401(k) match may not be the silver bullet for retirement savings that is widely presumed.

Personal savings jumped to 5.5% last year from 4.6% in 2013, according to data from Hearts and Wallets, a financial research firm. In the same period, average household savings allotted to employer-sponsored retirement plans fell to 22% from 29%. Among households eligible for a plan, only 56% participated, down from 60% the previous year.

Partly due to such behavior, Americans leave a staggering $24 billion on the table every year simply by not contributing enough to get their full employer match, according to a study by Financial Engines, a 401(k) advisory firm. Last year about a quarter of employees failed to collect their full match. The average worker missed out on $1,336 a year in free money—over 20 years, that can add up to $43,000.

The matching contribution is so ineffective at boosting savings that one third of eligible workers past the age of 59 ½ fail to take full advantage, research out of Yale and Harvard shows. That’s an especially dismal showing because these older workers can make penalty-free withdrawals from their plans.

If a 401(k) plan match is free money, why don’t more people take advantage? Inertia explains a lot. That’s why so many employers are switching their plans to automatically enroll new workers and automatically escalate their contribution rate. Another issue is that some workers don’t believe they can get by on less than their full take-home salary, and so they do not enroll or opt out of the plan if they have been automatically enrolled.

Typically, those who miss out on the match tend to be low- and middle-income workers. Ironically, this group would benefit the most from participation because the match would represent a bigger percentage of their income. A typical middle-income worker would more than double his or her annual savings just by raising the contribution rate to get the full match, Hearts and Wallets found.

In the end, the biggest beneficiaries of the 401(k) match are highly motivated savers, who tend be the most highly compensated. That’s why some policy experts and academics have raised questions about the fairness of corporate tax policies that encourage employers to offer a match. Maybe better public policy would be to redirect those tax dollars toward fixing Social Security, which benefits the low-income households least likely to save on their own and who need help the most.

Of course, any changes to tax policy aren’t likely to happen soon. All the more reason to make sure you are saving enough to get your full 401(k) match. Chances are, you won’t notice the difference in your take home pay—it helps that you get a tax break on the amount you sock away. To see how stepping up your savings will get you closer to your retirement goals, try this calculator.

Read next: When $1.5 Million Isn’t Enough for Retirement

MONEY retirement income

This Is the Top Secret of Wealthy Retirees

yacht in front of Miami mansions
Barry Winiker—Getty Images

Successful retirees still save nearly a third of income from their pension and 401(k) distributions.

Individuals that have saved successfully for retirement evidently cannot kick the habit. Even after they have reached retirement age they continue to save, on average, 31% of income, new research shows.

In many cases this continued saving comes from income streams guaranteed for life, such as a traditional pension, certain annuities, or Social Security. So further saving may have little to do with financial security—and much to do with a routine that has served them well over the years. If you are looking for the top secret of affluent retirees, it may be just that simple.

Retiree income flows from five primary sources, according to the research from fund company Vanguard. Guaranteed lifetime income is the biggest cut at 42%. Withdrawals from tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k) plans are the second biggest source (20%), followed by pay from a part-time job (12%), withdrawals from savings accounts (7%) and from specialty accounts like a cash-value life insurance policy (4%).

The income source matters. Those who mainly get by on withdrawals from a 401(k) or other financial accounts reinvest about a third of what they take out due, say, to required minimum distribution rules. Those collecting guaranteed monthly income save only 25%.

This makes perfect sense. Lifetime income, by definition, never runs out. Those who get most of their income this way are under far less pressure to save anything at all. Meanwhile, those living off withdrawals from financial accounts, which can run dry, show a predictable concern with that possibility.

These are findings worthy of some study in government and pension circles. In coming years, a greater share of retirees will rely more heavily on their own savings, which could undermine spending in general and take a bite out of economic growth. On the other hand, those who get most of their income from withdrawals from financial accounts are more likely to work longer or part-time in retirement, which contributes to the economy and probably the individual health of those doing so.

The Vanguard study looked at households where the head was 60 to 79 years old, had at least $100,000 of investable assets, and at least one member of the household was fully or partially retired. This is an affluent, though not rich, group that continues to save and, in some ways may be doing so inappropriately.

Two-thirds of the money saved from income that comes from financial accounts goes into low-yielding savings vehicles. That might be by design—a desire to lower risk or save for a big purchase. But it might also be the result of inertia—required distributions left unattended. If such distributions are not needed for spending they might be better reinvested in growth or higher income accounts.

It’s tempting to assume that affluent retirees keep saving simply because they have the means to live as they wish and still have income left over. But that probably sells them short. They had to save or work hard for their pension to get there. It’s the habit that made it happen—and once established it’s tough to kick.

Read next: How Being a Boring Investor Can Make You Rich

MONEY 401(k)s

Here’s What to Do If Your 401(k) Stinks

Q: My employer offers a 401(k) plan with a match. But all the funds in the plan have fees greater than 1.5%. That seems expensive. What should I do? – Jayesh Narwaney, Colorado

A: “Costs are one of the top things you should look at in a 401(k) plan,” says Mike Tedone, CPA and partner at Connecticut Wealth Management in Farmington, Conn. If your plan charges, say, an extra 1% in fees, that could reduce your retirement savings by 17% over a couple of decades.

Unfortunately, those fees are something that many workers overlook—and it’s easy to understand why. Plan costs aren’t easy to decipher, even though federal rules went into effect two years ago requiring better disclosure of 401(k) fees and investments. A National Association of Retirement Plan Participants study found that 58% of working Americans don’t realize they are even paying fees on their workplace retirement savings plans. And among those who were aware of costs, one out of four weren’t sure how much they were paying.

Here’s what you should know: Most workers pay two kinds of fees in 401(k)s. One category is the plan administration fees, which cover the paperwork and day-to-day operations. These costs might range from a few dollars to nearly $60 year, though some employers will foot this bill.

The other cost, and the biggest one, is the investment fees, which are paid to the managers of your funds. Investments fees typically aren’t covered by the employer—they are pooled together and deducted from your plan assets. You’ll see it listed in plan documents as the fund’s expense ratio.

How much does the average worker pay for a 401(k) plan? The costs, all-in, vary by plan size, but they generally range from 0.5% of assets for large company plans to 1.5% for smaller plans, says Tedone. Large plans tend to have lower fees than small plans because they can take advantage of economies of scale. So if the funds in your plan have investment fees of 1.5%—and that doesn’t include the administrative costs—your 401(k) expenses are indeed high.

To get a more specific idea of how your fees compare to other plans, you can check out BrightScope, which rates more than 50,000 401(k)s.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to improve your 401(k) on your own. You could ask your employer to add lower-cost choices, but that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean you should give up on your plan, though. If your employer offers matching contributions, you should save at least enough to get the match. “That’s free money, and you don’t want to miss out on that,” says Tedone. Also, if you’re married and your spouse has a better 401(k) plan, be sure to max that out.

Meanwhile, you do have other options. First, check to see if your company offers a self-directed brokerage window, which allows you to choose your own funds. If you’re comfortable selecting your own investments, you can build a mix of lower-cost index funds or ETFs. Or you can simply opt for an inexpensive target-date fund.

If your 401(k) doesn’t offer a brokerage window, consider saving outside your plan in a traditional or Roth IRA, which will give you the freedom to pick the investments. You do face lower contribution limits in IRAs, though—up to $5,500 a year for a traditional or a Roth IRA (those 50 and older can save an additional $1,000) vs. $18,000 in a 401(k). And you must meet certain income limits to qualify for tax breaks.

At the end of day, though, it’s hard to beat your 401(k) for building retirement savings, despite the high costs. The plan allows you to put away the most money on a tax-sheltered basis. What’s more, it’s the easiest way to save, since your contributions are automatically taken out of your paycheck. “When you take all that into account, your plan isn’t as bad as you think,” says Tedone. And at some point, when you change jobs, you’ll be able to move your savings to a better 401(k) or IRA.

Read next: Here’s How Much Cash You Need in Retirement

MONEY 401(k)s

Why the Rich Benefit Most from This 401(k) Tax Break

wealthy couple on retirement vacation
Tom Merton—Getty Images

Catch-up saving is available to everyone in 401(k)s, but most of us can't afford to do it.

Americans don’t save enough for retirement. That’s hardly news, but even well-intentioned policies meant to incentivize saving don’t always work as anticipated.

Take the so-called 401(k) catch-up provision, which lets workers 50 and older funnel additional tax-sheltered dollars into their plans. Great idea, right? But a new study by the Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research finds that nobody really uses the catch-up option — except for the tiny percentage of high-earning workers who are already maxing out out their contributions.

The study analyzed the response of people saving for retirement to the addition of the catch-up provision in 2001. Researchers looked at savings behaviors before and after older workers got the chance to sock away an extra $1,000 in 2002, which rose to an additional $4,000 by 2005. (Contribution limits, both regular as well as catch-up, are adjusted for inflation. In 2015, the cap ticked up from $17,500 to $18,000, and the catch-up limit rose from $5,500 to $6,000.)

The investors who take advantage of the catch-up provision tend to be the few who can afford to max out their contributions in the first place. Since most 401(k) savers don’t come close to hitting that limit, the distinction of being able to save $18,000 or $24,000 in a tax-deferred account is meaningless. Only about 3% of workers max out their contributions, according to a 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. (And this entire conversation leaves out the vast number of low-wage workers who don’t get any retirement benefits at all.)

Not surprisingly, the brief finds that people who do take advantage of the higher cap once they hit 50 tend to earn a lot more money than average. The Center’s analysis found that those who maxed out their 401(k) contributions earned around $163,000, compared to an average of $57,000 across the board. Along the same lines, the top contributors had more than twice the net worth of the typical worker—an average $439,000 vs. $200,000.

Between 2001 and 2005, the older workers already maxing out bumped up their savings by 14%, on average, once they became eligible for catch-up contributions. By contrast, younger workers already at the limit boosted their deferrals by an average 7%, as regular contribution limits were adjusted for inflation.

Workers under the age of 50 who were maxing out saved nearly $1,200 extra, vs. $250 for the average worker. For workers 50 and over who were maxing out, the increase was even more dramatic—they saved about $1,700 more. “While this group does not increase their contributions all the way up to the new limit, they appear to be quite sensitive to tax incentives to increase their 401(k) saving,” the brief says.

Unfortunately, most of the American workforce can’t afford to take advantage of this perk. Still, even if you can’t manage to max out, saving even a bit more can make a big difference. As an earlier study by the Center found, if you’re 25 and start saving 10% a year (including an employer match), you’ll be on track to comfortable retirement—if you keep up that till age 65. For those in their 30s, you’ll need to put away at least 15%. (To see if you’re saving enough for your goals, try this retirement calculator.)

What if you’re a late-starting saver? If you’re 45 and stash away at least 10% a year till age 70—yes, you’ll need to work longer—you could still have a secure retirement, the researchers find. And catch-up saving, if you can manage it, will do a lot to speed that timetable.

Read next: 10 Reasons You’re Not Rich Yet

MONEY 401(k)s

The Painless Way New Grads Can Reach Financial Security

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Steve Debenport—Getty Images

You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to do this one simple thing—now.

A newly minted class of college graduates enters the work world this summer in what remains a tough environment for young job seekers. Half of last year’s graduates remain underemployed, according to an Accenture report. Yet hiring is up this year, and as young people land their first real job they might keep in mind a critical advantage they possess: time, which they have more of than virtually everyone else and can use to build financial security.

Saving early is a powerful force. But it loses impact with each year that passes without getting started. You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to begin putting away 10% of everything you make, right away. And 15% would be even better.

Consider a worker who saves $5,000 a year from age 25 to 65 and earns 7% a year. Not allowing for expenses and taxes, this person would have $1.1 million at age 65. Compare that to a worker who starts saving at the same pace at age 35. This worker would amass half that total, just $511,000. And now for the clincher: If the worker that started at age 25 suddenly stopped saving at age 35, but left her savings alone to grow through age 65, she would enjoy a nest egg of $589,000—more than the procrastinator who started at age 35 and saved for 30 more years.

That is the power of compounding, and it is the most important thing about money that a young worker must understand. Those first 10 years of a career fly by quickly and soon you will have lost the precious early years of saving opportunity and squandered your advantage. That’s why, if possible, I advise parents to get their children started even before college.

Once you start working, your employer will almost certainly offer a 401(k) plan. More than 80% of full-time workers have access to one. This is the easiest and most effective way to get started saving immediately. Here are some thoughts on how to proceed:

  • Enroll ASAP Some companies will allow you to enroll on your first day while others require you to be employed for six months or a year. Find out and get started as soon as possible. Most people barely feel the payroll deductions; they quickly get used to making ends meet on what is left.
  • Have you been auto enrolled? Increasingly, employers automatically sign you up for a 401(k) as soon as you are eligible. Some also automatically increase your contributions each year. Do not opt out of these programs. But look at how much of your pay is being deferred and where it is invested. Many plans defer just 3% and put it in a super safe, low-yielding money market fund. You likely are eligible to save much more than that and want to be invested in a fund that holds stocks for long-term growth.
  • Make the most of your match A big advantage of saving in a 401(k) is the company match. Many plans will match your contributions dollar for dollar or 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of your salary. This is free money. Make sure you are contributing enough to get the full match.
  • Keep it simple Choosing investment options are where a lot of young workers get hung up. But it’s really simple. Forget the noise around large-cap and small-cap stocks, international diversification, and asset allocation. Most plans today offer a target-date fund that is the only investment you’ll ever need in your 401(k) plan. Choose the fund dated the year you will turn 65 or 70. The fund manager will handle everything else, keeping you appropriately invested for your age for the next 40 years. In many plans, such a target-date fund is the default option if you have been automatically enrolled.
  • Take advantage of a Roth Some plans offer a Roth 401(k) in addition to a regular 401(k). Divide your contributions between both. They are treated differently for tax purposes and having both will give you added flexibility in retirement. With a Roth, you make after-tax contributions but pay no tax upon withdrawal. With a regular 401(k), you make pre-tax contributions but pay tax when you take money out. The Roth is most effective if your taxes go up in retirement; the regular 401(k), if your taxes go down. Since it’s hard to know in advance, the smart move is to split your savings between the two.
  • Get help An increasing number of 401(k) plans include unbiased, professional third-party advice. This may be via online tools, printed material, group seminars, or one-on-one sessions. These resources can give you the confidence to make decisions, and according to Charles Schwab young workers that seek guidance tend to have higher savings rates and better ability to stay invested for the long haul in tough times.

Read next: 6 Financial Musts for New College Grads

 

 

MONEY Retirement

What Italy and Germany Show Us About the Future of Social Security

woman holding Italian and German flags
Shutterstock

Families, not government, may be what rescues retirement.

One of the big questions facing retirement planners is how much to count on Social Security in the decades ahead. The number of Americans past age 65 will double by 2050, part of the longevity revolution that threatens to leave Social Security insolvent by 2033.

That doesn’t mean benefits would stop abruptly. Under the current system, enough funding would be in place to continue benefits at 77% of the promised level. Of course, anything is possible if laws change. But cuts probably are coming.

Most Americans get that. Among those that have not yet retired, just 20% believe they will receive full benefits when they retire, according to a Pew Research report. Some 31% expect reduced benefits and 41% expect no benefits at all. Presumably, these findings skew along age lines. Most experts believe benefits adjustments will be phased in. Those currently 55 or older likely will see minimal change to their benefits while those under 30 likely will see big change.

The longevity revolution is a global phenomenon, and government pensions are in trouble around the world. Two of the oldest nations on the planet are Germany and Italy and, demographically speaking, they are now where the U.S. will be in 35 years: a fifth of their population is older than age 65. If you think Americans are glum about prospects for collecting Social Security, these nations offer a glimpse of what’s coming.

In Germany, just 11% think they will receive benefits at current levels, 45% think they will receive benefits at reduced levels and 41% expect to get no benefits at all, Pew found. In Italy, only 7% believe they will get full benefits, 29% expect benefits at reduced levels and 53% think they will get no benefits at all. Interestingly, Germans and Italians are twice as likely as Americans to believe this is primarily a problem for government to solve. In the U.S., there is a strong belief that this is a problem for families and individuals to fix, Pew found.

Just 23% of Italians are putting anything away for retirement, vs. 56% of Americans and, perhaps because austerity is in their DNA, 61% of Germans. The most important statistic, though, may be the percentage of young adults (ages 18-29) that are saving. This is the group most likely to see reduced or no benefits in retirement but which still has 40 years or more to let savings grow. In the U.S., 41% of young adults are saving for retirement. In Germany, the figure is 44%. In Italy, just 13% are saving.

What will fill the gaps? Pew found a strong sense of families as backstops in all three countries. Nearly nine in 10 Italians view financial assistance for an aging parent in need as their responsibility. The figure is 76% in the U.S. and 58% in Germany. This sense runs deepest among young adults, perhaps because their parents are now assisting them through an extended period of dependence known as emerging adulthood.

In all three countries, financial help is more likely to flow down to adult children than up to aging parents: about half or more of adults with grown children have helped them financially in the last 12 months. That many or more have assisted grown children in non-monetary ways as well, helping with errands, housework, home repairs or child care. The vast majority says this assistance is more rewarding than stressful; they value the time together.

So family support looms as a large part of future retirement security for many people in graying nations, and that’s fine for families with the wherewithal. But young adults, especially, don’t have to feel victimized by the decline of government pensions. They have many opportunities for tax-advantaged saving through an IRA or 401(k) plan, and decades to let compound growth solve their problems. Workers past 50 can take advantage of catch-up contributions, and for guaranteed lifetime income use a portion of their savings to buy a fixed annuity. Like it or not, personal savings is the key to retiring comfortably—self security in place of Social Security.

 

 

MONEY 401(k)s

The Big Mistake That Most 401(k) Savers Are Making

uneven balance with money on each side
iStock

The average 401(k) plan balance has risen to $100,000. But most workers fail to rebalance, so risks are rising too.

When it comes to saving in your 401(k), doing nothing can often work wonders.

As a recent survey by Aon Hewitt found, some 79% of workers who are eligible for a 401(k) or similar plan are participating, thanks in large part to the do-nothing magic of automatic enrollment. It’s the highest level since at least 2002, when the firm started tracking participation rates. This steady saving helped push account balances to a record high of $100,320 last year, up 10% from 2013.

Still, 401(k) inertia has a downside too. As the survey shows, most workers aren’t paying attention to the investments they hold, which increases the odds they will fall short of their retirement goals.

Take those record balances. Truth is, that 10% growth rate is relatively sluggish, which suggests many participants are invested in an ultra-conservative manner. The S&P 500 stock index jumped 13.5% in 2014, while Treasury bonds produced a 10.75% return. Moreover, only 24% of participants increased the amount they save each pay period, Aon Hewitt found. So even with additional cash going in, the average balance did not keep pace with either the stock market or the bond market.

Granted, a portion of that slow growth can be explained by regular distributions and early withdrawals. Last year, 3.6% of participants took regular withdrawals, up slightly from 3.5% the previous year, the Investment Company Institute reports. Meanwhile, 1.7% took a hardship withdrawal and at year-end 17.9% had a plan loan outstanding, ICI says. But a bigger issue probably has to do with participants leaving too much money in short-term money market accounts. In a lot of plans with automatic enrollment, the money goes into cash accounts that yield well under 1%.

Looking beyond account balances, Aon Hewitt’s data highlights another worrisome trend—only 15% of 401(k) savers did any sort of rebalancing last year, one of the lowest trading rates on record. Rebalancing is a fundamental aspect of long-term investing. Say your target asset mix is 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash. Once a year you should sell just enough of the funds that grow fastest (lately, stocks)— and add enough to the laggards (cash and bonds)—to restore your target mix. This time-tested strategy ensures you will buy low and sell high over the long haul and maintain the right level of risk in your portfolio.

Two years ago, stocks rose 32% and bonds fell 9%. The prudent move would have been to sell some stocks and buy some bonds, which would have let you benefit from the bond market’s rally last year. Stocks also rose last year by 13.7%. So if you haven’t rebalanced in the past two years, you probably hold a lot more in stocks than you originally intended, which means you may suffer worse-than-expected losses when the next bear market arrives.

The low level of rebalancing activity is only partly explained by the stunning rise of target-date funds, which automatically adjust holdings as you age. About 70% of 401(k) plans offer target-date funds and 75% of plan participants invest in them, according to T. Rowe Price. Stripping those and similar funds out, Aon still found that only 19% of participants rebalanced.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that workers now realize that they must save, and they want to know more about managing their money. But many are held back by inertia and concerns that they don’t know what they are doing. That’s why most heartily embrace plan features like automatic enrollment and automatic escalation of contributions. Aon Hewitt says workers would also benefit from better access to online tools and advice, and a simplified lineup of investment options.

The Holy Grail, though, may be a guaranteed lifetime income product, such as a deferred fixed annuity (for a portion of your portfolio), inside all defined contribution plans. These reduce the risk of failing to rebalance while giving workers something most sorely lack—an income stream other than Social Security that will never run out. Slowly, these income products are coming, Aon Hewitt says, as leading-edge companies better understand the laws and their responsibilities for what is a fairly new investment option.

Read next: How the New-Model 401(k) Can Boost Your Retirement Savings

MONEY health insurance

Why Too Many Health Insurance Choices Are Costing You Money

pills
David Malan—Getty Images

Consumers are bewildered by dozens of health plan options—and they're making expensive mistakes. Insurers could learn from 401(k) plans.

It’s time for health insurance plans to take a page out of 401(k) playbooks. People need simpler choices, as well as guidance that will nudge them toward the best plan for their needs.

That’s what 401(k)s are designed to do—though it took years for plans to evolve. As the traditional employer-managed defined benefit pension began to disappear, the early generations of 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans presented workers with new and complicated sets of investment choices.

Employees were so overwhelmed that many did nothing, leading Congress to pass reform laws to simplify 401(k) decisions, including providing default plan choices and using auto-enrollment—putting employees into plans unless they opt out. Today many employers are going a step further by turning 401(k)s into pension-like plans, removing the need for decisions unless workers choose to make them.

But health insurance is still stuck in an old-school 401(k) world. Obamacare exchanges have created extensive menus of plan choices that many consumers don’t understand. The exchange concept has also become popular among employer plans for both current workers and retirees. Exchange providers, led by big employee-benefits firms, are signing up lots of health insurers to offer employers and their workers extensive sets of plan choices.

The confusion extends to Medicare, as consumers are often required to choose among 30, 40 or more Medicare Advantage plans or Part D prescription drug plans. They are simply overmatched by the task, research shows.

As with 401(k)s, the primary problem consumers face with health insurance choices is that they don’t understand how the policies work, studies show. Nor do they understand the industry jargon—in the case of health insurance, that may mean even basic terms like deductibles and co-payments.

Consider this alarming study: A Fortune 100 company offered 48 new health insurance plans to more than 50,000 employees. All of the plans were offered by the same health insurer and offered identical coverage. They differed only by premiums, deductibles and other cost-sharing variables.

In roughly 80% of their selections, workers made bad decisions—opting for the low-deductible but high-premium plans that cost them more money yet provided no additional insurance protection. Lower-income and female employees made particularly bad choices.

The amounts of wasted money often equaled 40% or more of the employee’s annual premium expenses. Employees who chose low-deductible plans paid $631 more on average in premiums, but saved only $259 a year in out-of-pocket costs compared with available higher-deductible plans.

Even more discouraging, when researchers went back and told employees about their mistakes, it had very little effect. More than 70% of employees did not understand insurance well enough to make an informed choice. Further, it had never occurred to the workers that their employer would include lousy choices in its plan offerings, the researchers found.

Improving insurance literacy is crucial in helping employees understand how to make better choices. But as behavioral research with 401(k)s has shown, the most effective solution is to reduce the number of plan choices and their complexity.

“The promise of recent reforms that expand choice and aim to increase provider competition is premised on the assumption—challenged by our research—that enrollees will make sensible plan choices,” the researchers concluded.

So how can you be a better health care consumer? Justin Sydnor, one of the researchers and an economist at the University of Wisconsin business school, suggests the dreaded school math-class crucible: the story problem. First consider how much you expect to spend on health care. Then calculate whether your total payments would be higher with a low-deductible plan or a high-deductible plan. Asking people to compare premiums with out-of-pocket expenses helped set his research subjects on the right course.

If you’re not sure how to estimate your future health care spending (and that’s true for most people), run several calculations based on varying medical costs, Syndor says. For example, what would your out-of-pocket costs be if your health expenses were, say, $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 over the next year? You also can seek help from their employer’s health plan administrator or from the free counseling available for Obamacare and Medicare enrollees.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: Americans with Obamacare Are Still Afraid of Big Medical Bills

MONEY 401(k)s

How the New-Model 401(k) Can Help Boost Your Retirement Savings

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Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

As old-style pensions disappear, today's hands-off 401(k)s are starting to look more like them. And that's working for millennials.

If you want evidence that the 401(k) plan has been a failed experiment, consider how they’re starting to resemble the traditional pensions they’ve largely replaced. Plan by plan, employers are moving away from the do-it-yourself free-for-all of the early 401(k)s toward a focus on secure retirement income, with investment pros back in charge of making that happen.

We haven’t come full circle—and likely never will. The days of employer-funded, defined-benefit plans with guaranteed lifetime income will continue their three-decade fade to black. But the latest 401(k) plan innovations have all been geared at restoring the best of what traditional pensions offered.

Wall Street wizards are hard at work on the lifetime income question. Nearly all workers believe their 401(k) plan should have a guaranteed income option and three-in-four employers believe it is their responsibility to provide one, according to a BlackRock survey. So annuities are creeping into the investment mix, and plan sponsors are exploring ways to help workers seamlessly convert some 401(k) assets to an income stream upon retiring.

Meanwhile, like old-style pensions, today’s 401(k) plans are often a no-decision benefit with age-appropriate asset allocation and professionally managed investment diversification to get you to the promised land of retirement. Gone are confusing sign-up forms and weighty decisions about where to invest and how much to defer. Enrollment is automatic at a new job, where you may also automatically escalate contributions (unless you prefer to handle things yourself and opt out).

More than anything, the break-neck growth of target-date funds has brought about the change. Some $500 billion is invested in these funds, up from $71 billion a decade ago. Much of that money has poured in through 401(k) accounts, especially among our newest workers—millennials. They want to invest and generally know they don’t know how to go about it. Simplicity on this front appeals to them. Partly because of this appeal, 40% of millennials are saving a higher percentage of their income this year than they did last year—the highest rate of improvement of any generation, according to a T. Rowe Price study.

With a single target-date fund a saver can get an appropriate portfolio for their age, and it will adjust as they near retirement and may keep adjusting through retirement. About 70% of 401(k) plans offer target-date funds and 75% of plan participants invest in them, according to T. Rowe Price. The vast majority of investors in target-date funds have all their retirement assets in just one fund.

“This is a good thing,” says Jerome Clark, who oversees target funds for T. Rowe Price. Keeping it simple is what attracts workers and leads them to defer more pay. “Don’t worry about the other stuff,” Clark says. “We’ve got that. All you need do is focus on your savings rate.”

Even as 401(k) plans add features like auto enrollment and annuities to better replace traditional pensions, target-date funds are morphing too and speeding the makeover of the 401(k). These funds began life as simple balanced funds with a basic mix of stocks, bonds and cash. Since then, they have widened their mix to include alternative assets like gold and commodities.

The next wave of target-date funds will incorporate a small dose of illiquid assets like private equity, hedge funds, and currencies, Clark says. They will further diversify with complicated long-short strategies and merger arbitrage—thus looking even more like the portfolios that stand behind traditional pensions.

This is not to say that target-date funds are perfect. These funds invest robotically, based on your age not market conditions, so your fund might move money at an inopportune moment. Target-date funds may backfire on millennials, who have taken to them in the highest numbers. Because of their age, millennials have the greatest exposure to stocks in their target-date funds and yet this generation is most likely to tap their retirement savings in an emergency. What if that happens when stock prices are down? Among still more concerns, one size does not fit all when it comes to investing. You may still be working at age 65 while others are not. That calls for two different portfolios.

But the overriding issue is that Americans just don’t save enough and a reasonably inexpensive and relatively safe investment product that boosts savings must be seen as a positive. With far less income, millennials are stashing away about the same percentage of their earnings as Gen X and boomers, according to T. Rowe Price. That’s at least partly thanks to new-look 401(k)s and the target-date funds they offer.

Read next: 3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Whether your retirement goal is six figures or seven figures, it's harder to achieve in today's market—unless you have a plan.

A new Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey found that $1 million is the median savings balance people estimate they’ll need for retirement. And many savers have been able to reach or exceed that goal, according a report last year by the Government Accountability Office showing that some 630,000 IRA account owners have balances greater than $1 million.

But most of these people accumulated those hefty sums in an era of generous investment returns. Between 1926 and 2014, large-company stocks gained an annualized 10.1%, while intermediate-term government bond returned 5.3% annually, according to the 2015 Ibbotson Classic Yearbook. During the go-go ’90s annualized gains were even higher—18.2% for stocks and 7.2% for bonds. Today, however, forecasts like the one from ETF guru Rick Ferri call for much lower gains, say, 7% annualized for stocks and 4% or so for bonds. Which makes building a seven-figure nest egg more of a challenge.

Still, the goal remains doable, if you go about it the right way. Here are three steps that can increase your chances of pulling it off.

1. Get in the game as early as possible—and stay in as long as you can. The more years you save and invest for retirement, the better your chances of building a big nest egg. Here’s an example. If you’re 25, earn $40,000 a year, receive annual raises of 2% during your career and earn 5% a year after expenses on your savings—a not-too-ambitious return for a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds—you can accumulate a $1 million account balance by age 65 by saving a bit more than 15% of salary each year. That’s pretty much in line with the recommendation in the Boston College Center For Retirement Research’s “How Much Should People Save?” study.

Procrastinate even a bit, however, and it becomes much tougher to hit seven figures. Start at 30 instead of 25, and the annual savings burden jumps to nearly 20%, a much more challenging figure. Hold off until age 35, and you’ve got to sock away more a far more daunting 24% a year.

Of course, for a variety of reasons many of us don’t get as early a start as we’d like. In that case, you may be able to mitigate the savings task somewhat by tacking on extra years of saving and investing at the other end by postponing retirement. For example, if our hypothetical 25-year-old puts off saving until age 40, he’d have to sock away more than 30% a year to retire at 65 with $1 million. That would require a heroic saving effort. But if he saved and invested another five years instead of retiring, he could hit the $1 million mark by socking away about 22% annually—still daunting, yes, but not nearly as much as 30%. What’s more, even if he fell short of $1 million, those extra years of work would significantly boost his Social Security benefit and he could safely draw more money from his nest egg since it wouldn’t have to last as long.

2. Leverage every saving advantage you can. The most obvious way to do this is to make the most of employer matching funds, assuming your 401(k) offers them, as most do. Although many plans are more generous, the most common matching formula is 50 cents per dollar contributed up to 6% of pay for a 3% maximum match. That would bring the required savings figure to get to $1 million by 65 down a manageable 16% or so for our fictive 25-year-old, even if he delayed saving a cent until age 30. Alas, a new Financial Engines report finds that the typical 401(k) participant misses out on $1,336 in matching funds each year.

There are plenty of other ways to bulk up your nest egg. Even if you’re covered by a 401(k) or other retirement plan, chances are you’re also eligible to contribute to some type of IRA. (See Morningstar’s IRA calculator.) Ideally, you’ll shoot for the maximum ($5,500 this year; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older), but even smaller amounts can add up. For example, invest $3,000 a year between the ages of 25 and 50 and you’ll have just over $312,000 at 65 even if you never throw in another cent, assuming a 5% annual return.

If you’ve maxed out contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, you can boost after-tax returns in taxable accounts by focusing on tax-efficient investments, such as index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds, that minimize the portion of your return that goes to the IRS. Clicking on the “Tax” tab in any fund’s Morningstar page will show you how much of its return a fund gives up to taxes; this Morningstar article offers three different tax-efficient portfolios for retirement savers.

3. Pare investment costs to the bone. You can’t force the financial markets to deliver a higher rate of return, but you can keep more of whatever return the market delivers by sticking to low-cost investing options like broad-based index funds and ETFs. According to a recent Morningstar fee study, the average asset-weighted expense ratio for index funds and ETFs was roughly 0.20% compared with 0.80% for actively managed mutual funds. While there’s no assurance that every dollar you save in expenses equals an extra dollar of return, low-expense funds to tend to outperform their high-expense counterparts.

So, for example, if instead of paying 1% a year in investment expenses, the 25-year-old in the example above pays 0.25%—which is doable with a portfolio of index funds and ETFs—that could boost his annual return from 5% to 5.75%, in which case he’d need to save just 13% of pay instead of 15% to build a $1 million nest egg by age 65, if he starts saving at age 25—or just under 22% instead of 24%, if he procrastinates for 10 years. In short, parting investment expenses is the equivalent of saving a higher percentage of pay without actually having to reduce what you spend.

People can disagree about whether $1 million is a legitimate target. Clearly, many retirees will need less, others will require more. But whether you’ve set $1 million as a target or you just want to build the largest nest egg you can, following the three guidelines will increase your chances of achieving your goal, and improve your prospects for a secure retirement.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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