A recent article in Investor’s Business Daily got a lot of attention online. The subject of the article was how much the average 401(k) balance has increased over the past 10 years split out by generations. Millennials had an average balance of $137k in 2019 up from $10,500 in 2009. While Boomers had an average of $366k up from $98k 10 years ago.

It seemed that most people responding to the article on social media had a similar reaction along the lines of, “that’s crazy, there’s no way that’s true”. And turns out they were mostly right. The data was taken from a fidelity survey of their 401k plan participants, but what wasn’t stated in the article was that these numbers only considered those individuals that had their same 401k account open for the past 10 years. Once you hear this detail the numbers start to make a bit more sense.

The majority of millennials are still in the early stage of their careers which is typically a time where people take the opportunity to jump around between jobs, companies, and different places to live and see what fits them best. This is especially true for this generation as we have pushed marriage and home buying later either because of preferences, opportunities or both. It makes sense that those that have had a stable job with the same 401k for the past 10 years would have a much higher balance than the overall average. It’s probably a pretty limited set of the millennial cohort included in this data set, but I think there are a few points we can take away from this info, even if the article seems to have been constructed in a way to get people worked up and share it purely from a “would you look at this *#$&?!” angle.

Just stick with it

The accounts included in this group have been open for at least 10 years, which illustrates the amazing effect you can have by continuing to do the little things right month after month and compound them over time. Continuing to contribute to your 401k plan, paycheck after paycheck, is a great first step towards building up your retirement savings. Especially given the benefits that a 401k typically provides vs an IRA: employer matching, higher contribution limits, additional after-tax contributions if available.  

It can be tempting when moving from one job to another to cash out your 401k rather than roll it over into a new 401k or IRA. There are a few times where cashing it out makes sense from a financial planning perspective, such as in the case of extreme hardships, but it’s typically a much better option to roll it into another plan and continue making your contributions and grow your funds for the future.

The benefits of having a 401k 

If your employer didn’t offer a 401k and you only had access to investing within an IRA (with contribution limits below $7k/year for the past decade) you would be hard pressed to grow your account in the same way without maxing out your IRA contribution every year over the past 10. However, with a 401k you could contribute up to $16,500 yourself and $49k total between you and your employer in 2009, and those numbers increased over the decade to $19,000 and $56k respectively. It’s obvious with a 401k that you could contribute much more, especially as your income grows, than with only an IRA, not to mention the benefits of receiving employer match contributions.

If you don’t have access to a 401k consider asking your employer to offer one. Many small businesses do not offer a 401k because of concerns about cost and matching contributions, but in recent years 401k plan administration costs for small businesses have decreased and companies do not need to offer a full or even any match if they don’t want to. 401k plans have been shown to be great for retention of employees and I’m sure the individuals in the fidelity study are glad that they had the opportunity to invest in theirs over the past decade.

What else can you do

So, what can you do if you don’t have a 401k and it doesn’t look like you will get access to one anytime soon?

  • If you are a 1099 employee consider setting up a SEP-IRA. With a SEP you can contribute up to 25% of your earnings or $57k, whichever is lower, for 2020. This can be a way to goose your contribution above the traditional IRA limit of $6k. If you are not a 1099 employee but are considering it make sure to consult with a tax professional whether or not it makes sense to switch from a W-2 to self-employed because there are additional tax consequences to consider.
  • If you can, contribute to an HSA. Stack that on top of your IRA adds an additional $3,550 ($7,100 if you are married) that you can contribute to tax advantaged accounts. HSAs are also one of my favorite stealth retirement accounts because they are triple tax efficient if used correctly. You can contribute tax-free, the funds grow tax-free inside the account, and the funds can be withdrawn tax-free if used for qualifying medical expenses.

So, there are steps you can take if your 401k or other retirement savings accounts aren’t at the level of those in the article, or otherwise where you’d like them to be. And if you’d like someone to help you put together a plan to boost your 401k or IRA contributions consider reaching out to a fee-only financial planner today.