Inside America’s Savings Plans

Americans are faced with many competing financial priorities, and must consider the ramifications of living longer, escalating healthcare costs, and the costs of higher education. So how do Americans prioritize, and what are most of them saving for? Ascensus’ 2016 trends report examines savers across retirement, health savings, and college savings plans to find answers.

PLANADVISER spoke with three Ascensus executives: Geno Cufone, senior vice president of retirement administration; Steve Christenson, executive vice president of health savings and retirement plan services; and Peg Creonte, senior vice president of business development and marketing for the company’s college savings division.

PASO16-TL-Acensus-Image Geno Cufone; Steve Christenson; Peg Creonte

PA: What is the savings situation for Americans today, and how do you, from each of your vantage points, view the success of the current saving vehicles?

Geno Cufone: More Americans are saving for retirement than ever before. We’re seeing a significant spike in the average account balance held by Americans today vs. 10 years ago: about a 53% increase since 2007.

Steve Christenson: On the healthcare side, when health savings accounts [HSAs] were approved by Congress in 2003, it created a valuable tool for savers. We’ve seen substantial growth, allowing people to begin saving more on an annual basis and to transition to longer-term thinking about health savings instead of the use-it-or-lose-it flexible spending account.

Peg Creonte: As the cost of college has greatly outpaced inflation, families are looking for ways to help them save. Many are turning to 529 plans. 529s came into being when President Clinton signed Qualified Tuition Plans into law in 1996 and now have assets of about $235 billion as of the end of last year.

PA: Geno, what do you think is spurring retirement account growth? And what can you tell us about the movement toward fee-based advising and zerorevenue- share funds, and Ascensus’ role as an open architecture player in this movement?

Cufone: Features such as automatic enrollment and automatic increase are driving overall plan enrollment and getting more employees to consider a savings strategy.

Access to professionally managed model portfolios and the availability of target date funds have also helped employees with their savings strategies. Unfortunately, based on our analysis, less than 40% of savers are on track to meet their goals—the average American needs to start saving at a 13.5% deferral rate to be on track to do that. Today only about 36% of Americans are set to meet their retirement goals.

When it comes to fee-based advising and zero-revenueshare funds, advisers have had to really differentiate themselves from an expense standpoint. That’s why you see such a trend toward fee-based advisers getting a greater market share of the plans being sold. More than 70% of the plans that came onboard last year were sold by fee-based advisers. In addition, more fund families are introducing zero-revenue-share funds. One year ago, we had 1,400 investment choices that paid zero revenue as a primary selection within fee-based plans. That has increased to 2,300 investment choices this year.

PA: Peg, how are college savings and 529 plans being used? Is the market relatively saturated, or is there still room to educate people?

Creonte: 529s can significantly reduce the loan burden of a family, and can be used for community college, four-year schools, and trade schools. The vast majority of the withdrawals that go through our platform are qualified withdrawals—and 70% of the withdrawals are for $5,000 or less. This means people are actually using these withdrawals for college, but are likely using them to supplant other sources of funding. On the contribution side, the majority of our contributions are small dollar contributions; 75% of our contributions are for $200 or less and 61% are for $100 or less.

There is still a significant percentage of our target population (parents of children who intend to pursue education after high school) who aren’t aware of 529s. Those who do know what a 529 is include those who have parents and grandparents helping them pay for college and who are using a 529 plan to do so. Those are the people who will be having children and thinking about how they plan to help their children achieve success. We expect continued growth in 529 plans and in the number of people saving in those plans.


PA: Steve, how do you see health savings accounts being used?

Christenson: In the HSA world, you get better participation when an employer makes the contribution on the employees’ behalf to the account. When you have and want to retain good employees, give them an employer contribution. It’s very easy to do: You can just give $100 to every employee to kick-start the HSA and get them to save directly through payroll. As people are gaining these balances in their HSAs, they’re saying, “OK, if I have a problem next year I’m covered.” If they’re disciplined enough to continue to contribute, they’ll start to see that they’re growing a real balance.

Long term, the HSA can be considered a kind of medical IRA with triple tax benefits. Current year contributions either reduce your W-2 income if made through payroll deduction or a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your gross income if you can contribute directly. After age 65, if you use HSA dollars for qualified expenses, those dollars are tax-exempt similar to a Roth IRA. For nonqualified expenses, there are no penalties. It simply becomes taxable income similar to a traditional IRA. As more consumers begin to realize these benefits, HSA balances will grow into sizable amounts and part of the overall portfolio.

PA: What is the intersection of these three priorities?

Creonte: Retirement should be your number one goal because you can’t borrow for it. You should have a solid plan in place for retirement before you turn to your other priorities. That said, it can be less than optimal to save for retirement and then tap into that savings for college, because there can be penalties and taxes associated with that. If you fully intend to pay some amount for college, think about how you can work that into your overall savings priorities.

Cufone: Advisers used to have to help their participants diversify by getting them across multiple investments. Now, they have to get the right mix of HSA, 529, and retirement savings to suit a participant’s needs. Having a savings plan in place for these three needs has become the new diversification. Each individual will vary, and it will be important for employers to make available an adviser who can help savers put together the plan that is right for them.


For more savings trends and insights from Ascensus, visit