Retirement Savings Rebound: The New Norm, or a Blip?

When it comes to retirement savings, many of us are on our own, and Wall Street's recent rally is giving 401(k) holders a nice boost.

A recent study from Principal Financial Group finds an increase in 401(k) savings and contribution rates since 2009. The study, which analyzed more than 1.8 million 401(k) participants, found  balances rose 93% -- nearly double -- since the downturn.

“It seems as if we have finally learned our lessons from the financial crisis and people are making their retirement a priority,” says Jerry Patterson to senior vice president of retirement investor services at Principal Financial Group.

Account balances jumped 17% last year to an average of $54,000, according to the study, as Wall Street closed the year at record highs.

While the study’s results are positive, Patterson admits the $4-trillion question (the estimated retirement savings gap) is whether or not the increased savings trend will stick. He says the number of participants amplifying their contributions has risen nearly 70% since 2009, with the average contribution jumping 14% during the same time period.

"We have seen the broader savings rates have material improvements since 2008, while we are starting to see that dip down a little bit as people become more confident in the recovery, the real test now will be just how far it dips down.”

Chris Chaney, vice president at Fort Pitt Capital Group, says anecdotally that he’s seen a greater willingness recently to shift more funds into 401(k)s. “At this point, people really don’t have any other great options with interest rates being so low.”

He said the 2008 financial crisis scarred many retail investors and caused them to leave the market. And even though those that stayed in the market through the recovery have replaced (and then some) their losses, he doesn’t expect that flight behavior to change the next time the market takes a tumble.

“People are people. They will behave the same every time because when you are going through the pain at the moment, you always tell yourself: ‘this time seems different.’ While the catalyst for the market sell-off will be  different, the behavior is always the same.”

Younger workers seem to be a driving force behind the savings rebound, with Patterson noting that 80% of Millennials report they’re actively managing their budgets, and 60% have an emergency fund.

“We’ve seen a generational change; we are seeing enlightenment among younger people that they need to save for retirement themselves. We have turned the corner with people knowing they have to take the reins of their retirement.”

While Millennials might be paying closer attention to their finances, Chaney claims young investors are still being too conservative.

“Many young investors are being too sensitive to market volatility and putting money in bonds, cash and stable-value funds,” he says. “They have 30 to 40 years until they retire, time is on their side and they need to take advantage.”

Employers’ shift away from defined-benefit plans like pensions to defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s or IRAs have left consumers picking up the slack when it comes to creating their nest egg, a task that Chaney describes as “nearly impossible to do solo.”

“If I need to wire my home, I am going to bring in an electrician that knows all the ins and outs of undertaking such a task. We are asking people to become experts in health-care planning, tax strategies and learn all the different types of savings tools and find the best one for them. That’s simply not realistic for everyone.”

Automating 401(k) enrollment has also contributed to higher savings. Vanguard’s annual retirement report shows more than half of all contributing 401(k) participants last year were in plans with automatic enrollment. Of automated plans, 69% automatically increase their participants’ contribution rate every year.

Principal Financial Group claims automatic enrollment can propel average participation to 89%. What's more, its research shows offering automatic enrollment saw a 73% participation rate vs. a 60% participation rate for plans with traditional enrollment.

“We should do everything to make it easier for people to save,” says Chaney. “When the money comes out before people even see it, they adjust their lifestyle accordingly and they learn to live on less, and that is the basic underlying rule to a thriving retirement: living on less.”