With Social Security trust fund reserves waning—predicted to be depleted by 2034, leaving Social Security unable to maintain full scheduled benefits—and the number of retirees expecting to receive benefits increasing, more and more Americans are relying on 401(k) savings to support their retirement living. In fact, Statista estimates there are 41.2 million households who presently own a 401(k) plan in the U.S.
How does auto-enrollment fit in with these tax-advantaged savings accounts? There’s a clear benefit, as recently determined by 401(k) record-keeper Alight Solutions LLC in its 2017 Trends & Experience in Defined Contributions Plans report. Far more individuals contribute to a 401(k) with an auto-enrollment feature (85 percent) than to plans without it (63 percent).
While that should lead to higher savings rates and stronger financial health for future retirees, there is a glaring concern: Increases in auto-enrollment are leading to more early withdrawals. According to Retirement Clearinghouse LLC, over 60 percent of 401(k) participants with balances below $10,000 liquidate their accounts after leaving a company, reports the Wall Street Journal.
What’s causing this increase in withdrawals (also known as leakage)? Job changes lead to low 401(k) balances, which are largely cashed out due to company payout checks that can easily be deposited. The alternative? Having to fill out burdensome paperwork to transfer the funds into a tax-advantaged account. Others use their funds as a type of loan regardless of penalties incurred.
Although small loans or early withdrawals may not seem like much in the grand scheme of funds necessary to support retirement living, these can add up to a costly dip in long-term savings. While statistics by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School show that most 401(k) borrowers pay themselves back (with interest), 10 percent default on nearly $5 billion per year.
How will this impact retirement-incentivized real estate? A survey conducted last year by The Hartford Advance 50 Team and MIT AgeLab found that 73 percent of surveyed adults over 45 strongly agreed with the statement “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.”
That may not be achievable for a majority of retirees. Less funds to support retirement living may lead to more move-down buyers, as retirees struggle to pay off remaining mortgage debt on bigger homes while also maintaining their current costs of living. Additionally, aging in place no longer means simply staying in their current home, as improvements are necessary to ensure their safety and comfort, and these modifications can be costly.
Independent living in a safe format is merely one consideration. According to a Merrill Lynch Finances in Retirement Survey last year, the average cost to retire has increased to $738,400. The average balance in a 401(k) account is $102,900, according to Fidelity.
How much does auto-enrollment and early withdrawals impact retirement moving trends? Participating employees are more likely to reduce their potential auto-enrollment gains by as much as 42 percent, withdrawing an average of $850 more than employees who voluntarily enroll. This could lead to massive losses in retirement savings down the road.
When taking overall auto-enrollment savings into consideration, however, those who participated saved, on average, $1,200 more in eight years (in 2004 dollars) compared to employees hired only a year earlier but who were required to sign up on their own, according to the Alight report. Additionally, companies offering auto-enrollment are largely converting more employees, who would not typically contribute, into retirement savers.
Younger workers should start seeking employment with companies that offer 401(k) auto-enrollment now, and should refrain from pocketing low balances should they transfer jobs or withdrawing until they have reached retirement age. Additionally, in order to truly benefit from auto-enrollment and build up savings, Congress may have to impose added restrictions on low-balance payouts in response to job transitions, as well as make it easier for auto-enrolled contributors to transfer funds without the hassle of complex paperwork.
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