Monday, November 8, 2010

Another Retirement Planning Study on Women

There is another study out this past week, this one conducted by the Hartford, on the state of retirement. Beyond knowing where you stand on the subject, a point in time that seems to defy statistical reports such as these, the feeling that we are mostly under the microscope of planners and brokers and insurance agents is becoming annoying. The Hartford study on the retirement plans of those in a post-Great Recession world reveals some interesting percentages. Yet the back story is somewhat concealed in those facts and figures.

It is nice to see that women are participating in their retirement plans with a great many of them seeking to gain some sort of comprehensive understanding of exactly what these plans are. No mean feat by any stretch and a struggle that men have seemingly come to grips with, given up on or otherwise recoiled in risk averse fear. Women it seems are on the verge of doing the same thing. And the journey might be different; then again, it might not.

The Hartford suggests that retirement plan participation rates increased among the female workforce - but fails to mention that so did the overall female make-up of the workforce. The study also fails to mention how many of these women were swept up into the auto-enrollment mandate.

The study also suggested that this group completely or mostly understood their retirement plans (401(k)s). Which I suppose on the surface is a good thing to know. But the study doesn't necessarily test that knowledge - they simply take their surveyed answers and make some educated guesses.

Comprehension is the biggest struggle facing anyone who must use their company's retirement plan. How those plans are being used, which investments are favored the most, and how well the participants understand the importance of making regular contributions is of great interest to not only the government and Wall Street but to those actively selling, tweaking or otherwise sponsoring these plans.

Comprehension and increased participation doesn't point to higher rates of investment savvy nor do they suggest that enough is being put away to make a difference. Few people are capable of completely understanding the methodology of investments, know what risk is and how to use it. Fewer people are willing to make serious financial sacrifices while they are working to maximize the potential of their retirement plans. And even fewer still, make enough of a contribution to matter.

There was a stat in that report that suggested that many participants reduced their contribution or even stopped altogether citing economic hardships (about 22%). This also correlates with the number of employers who stopped matching or reduced their matching contribution.

While the study doesn't give us the survey questions, it would be interesting to know if those surveyed were asked if they knew what vesting was, how long their employer held their contribution before they actually gave it to them and if they were aware that they could maintain their current take-home pay with a pre-tax contribution of about 4-5%?

Vesting, for those of you who may not know is the time between when you are hired and the time you have access to your retirement plan. This varies with the best plans making it available soon after your first day on the job to up to two years. Businesses do this when they fear higher turn-over (a sign that job dissatisfaction might be higher in this job and the company has reacted by trying to hold on to their contribution in the even you might flee soon after orientation).

You might be auto-enrolled in your 401(k), but it doesn't mean you own the plan or the money your employer may have contributed on your behalf. What you do own is what you put in. That 4-5% rule is often downplayed in favor of the matching contribution, which is not free money as many say it is and it is not free of strings. In the post Great Recession era, that "free money" may actually be the only pay increase you might see. It might also come at the expense of other benefits such as health care.

And auto-enrollment doesn't suggest benevolence. It suggests a fund that the company has the smallest liability in offering a new employee who may or may not have a clue. Often these "suggested" investments come in the form of a target date fund or a low-cost index fund. Neither of these is necessarily bad for the new worker. But so much attention has been devoted to reducing risk (liability) and fees (which often come at the expense of good choices for a wide demographic of workers) that these plans, even if you are automatically enrolled are much more sterile than they were just a couple of years ago.

The 4-5% rule is relatively simple and should be used match or no match. Setting your account up to have this amount withdrawn will not impact your take-home pay. Once you become comfortable with this, and perhaps have taken the hour or two needed to become accustomed to the plan you have, the only way you will be able to increase your chances of not being poor in retirement is to begin increasing your contribution.

Increasing that retirement plan contribution can be done in a number of ways. Channel your pay increases into the plan. Forward your bonus. Reduce your debt and in doing so, use the money you spent on debt service (interest) and use it to increase your retirement plan balance. Or simply live a little smaller now knowing that it will be easier to do so while you are earning money.

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