NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Americans Are Raiding Their 401(k)s in Record Numbers

January 23, 2013

Americans are frequently breaching their retirement savings to cover current expenses, a problem that raises questions about the retirement security of millions, says Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post.

  • A new report from HelloWallet finds that 25 percent of workers dip into their nest egg to pay mortgages, credit card debt and other bills, with 33 percent of those in their 40s raiding their savings.
  • New data from Vanguard, the world's largest mutual fund company, indicates that 12 percent of workers have tapped their accounts or taken out loans against them.
  • With only one in five workers in the private-sector benefiting from a pension, these 401(k) breaches might have dire long-term consequences as Americans age.

Sparse wage increases and rises in the cost of living have driven more workers to tap their savings since the start of the recession.  An all-time high of 28 percent of participants reported existing loans against their retirement accounts according to Aon Hewitt, a human resources consultancy that surveyed 110 large employers.

  • About 33 percent of U.S. households contribute to a 401(k)-type account, yet a recent study conducted by Boston College's Center for Retirement Research found that an average household had $120,000 in savings, which amounted to a mere $7,000 per year annuity.
  • Since 2006, employers have had a greater ability to enroll employees in 401(k)s and recently the annual contributions limits were raised.
  • While 401(k) plans are suited for the modern worker who changes jobs frequently, they are only beneficial if workers continue to contribute to them.
  • Thirty percent of lower-income workers, earning less than $50,000, have cashed out a retirement plan for non-retirement purposes, while only 12 percent earning between $100,000 and $150,000 and 8 percent of workers earning more than $150,000 a year have done so according to Matt Fellowes, formerly of the Brookings Institution who wrote HelloWallet's report.

Savings withdrawals prior to retirement will likely lead to depleted retirement accounts for a growing number of Americans who will then rely solely on government programs in their later years.

Source: Michael A. Fletcher, "401(k) Breaches Undermining Retirement Security for Millions," Washington Post, January 14, 2013. Matt Fellowes and Katy Willemin, "The Retirement Breach in Defined Contribution Plans," HelloWallet, January 2013.


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