Investors Want Some Control in Saving for Retirement

More investors surveyed prefer a 401(k) over a pension, and they do not want to give up control of all retirement savings actions.

Asked whether they prefer a “a 401(k)-type plan that you control and invest in, and which the company may contribute to, with the payout dependent on your plan’s performance” or “a company pension plan that provides you with a guaranteed income in retirement, with the payout dependent on your salary and how long you worked for your employer,” 52% of not-yet-retired investors chose the 401(k), versus 46% who chose the pension.

According to the Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index for the fourth quarter, 69% of working investors have access to an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, and 96% of those with access are actively contributing to their plans. Eighty-six percent say their employer matches some part of their contributions, and 81% say this is “very important” in helping them save for retirement.

While three-quarters would be in favor of a new employer automatically enrolling them in a 401(k) plan at the start of their employment, and 66% would want their employer setting up automatic increases for their contributions, fewer than half would favor their employer automatically rebalancing their investments each year (44%) or automatically making age-appropriate investment choices for them (41%).

Most employed investors with a 401(k) plan rely on advice for using the plan effectively, but they are commonly finding it from outside sources. About one in four (27%) say they rely on a professional adviser outside of work, and another 39% rely mainly on themselves or a friend or family member for help. Just 22% say most of their advice comes from the financial firm that runs their 401(k) plan, and 11% say they seek advice from their company’s benefits department or another financial professional where they work.

“People seek advice about their 401(k), and the industry needs to make it easier for participants to access advice. Investors rely on these plans and want to talk to people who can help them understand a proper savings rate, investment diversification, and concepts like longevity risk and income management. We have to be much more proactive as an industry in helping them make the right choices for their future,” says Joe Ready, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust.

Employed investors say that after health care benefits, a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k) is the most important benefit their employer provides (61%), exceeding paid time off or sick leave (23%), life insurance (5%) and stock options (4%).

About one-third (32%) of investors says they have increased their savings for retirement in the last 12 months, while about two-thirds have not. At the same time, 9% of working investors—including 14% of those ages 18 to 39—are not saving for retirement.

While about one-quarter of working investors say they could not possibly save any more each month, 69% believe they could save more. Among this group, the median additional amount they estimate they could save each month is $250, with 31% estimating they could save an additional $400 or more each month.

Among those who are working and saving, the average age they started saving is 29. Four in 10 (45%) started saving at age 30 or older. A majority (80%) of investors say Americans’ inadequate retirement savings comes down to “delaying” the process of saving for retirement and having a hard time paying the day-to-day bills.

In addition, many investors are clearly counting on Social Security to supplement their personal savings and investments in retirement. When asked if they would be motivated to save more if they knew they would not receive Social Security money when they retire, more than half (54%) say they would be motivated to save either “a lot more” or “a little more.” Just 44% say that scenario would not make a difference in how much they save.

A lack of savings cannot necessarily be pinned on people taking out loans or withdrawals from their 401(k) plans. Relatively few workers who participate in their employer’s 401(k) report that in the past five years they have taken out a 401(k) loan (16%). Even fewer, 9%, have taken an early withdrawal from the plan. However, 21% of investors with a 401(k) have done at least one of these things, including 5% who have done both.

More than three-quarters of those polled (78%) currently own stocks, versus 22% who do not. A little more than half (56%) of investors say that “now is a good time to invest” in the financial markets, up from 52% at the start of 2014. As recently as November 2012, the majority of investors said it was not a good time to invest. Notably, all of this quarter’s heightened confidence in the markets comes from retirees, 54% of whom say it’s a good time to invest in the markets, up from 44% last quarter. Working investors’ views virtually didn’t change, with 56% in the fourth quarter saying it is a good time to invest.

In a separate question, a minority (45%) of investors rate the financial markets as an “excellent” or “good” way for average Americans to grow their assets, although this is an increase from 37% a year ago. A majority (55%) still rate the markets as “only fair” (38%) or “poor” (17%) for the average American.

The Wells Fargo-Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index is based on a survey conducted November 14 through 23 by telephone, among 1,009 investors randomly selected from across the country. For this study, the American investor is defined as an adult in a household with total savings and investments of $10,000 or more. About two in five American households have at least $10,000 in savings and investments. The sample size is comprised of 71% working and 29% retired investors. Of total respondents, 60% had reported annual income of less than $90,000 and 40% of $90,000 or more.