Defined Contribution (DC) Plans are the backbone of retirement planning in America. Vanguard manages DC plans for 4 million Americans, with over $800 Billion in assets. So, I am always interested to read their annual report, How America Saves, which offers a window into the state of retirement preparation in America.
Looking through this year’s report, I see both reasons for optimism as well as concern. On the positive side, 78% of eligible employees participated in their company plan. And the average account balance was $96,288. It’s great that a majority of employees are participating.
However, it is surprising to discover the difference between the average and the median. (As a quick refresher, the median is the data point that is exactly in the middle – with half being higher and half being lower than this point.) The difference between the average and the median scores in Vanguard’s report belies a growing chasm between participants who save the minimum and those who save as much as they can.
While the “average” account balance was $96,288 in Vanguard Retirement Plans, the median participant had only $26,405. That means that half of all accounts have under $26,405, and that the average is skewed higher by very large accounts of $300,000, $400,000 and more.
The problem is that many participants are simply not contributing enough. The average deferral rate is 6.8%, but the median again is lower: 5.9%. Disappointingly, the average deferral rate is down from 7.3% in 2007, which means that most people are saving even less than they were 10 years ago.
People really do need to save 10% or more for their retirement. Instead, many invest only 3% or whatever is the default minimum. That’s because many participants only contribute up to the company match. In fact, when I ran a plan for a small company with a dozen employees, all but two only contributed up to the match. When you contribute the minimum over the course of a career, you are not thinking in term of the outcome. Will I have saved enough to fund a comfortable retirement? Am I on the path to financial independence?
However, there are good savers out there. 20% of the participants in a Vanguard plan are saving more than 10% of their salary into their retirement plan. These are the accounts which are bringing up the median of $26,405 to the average of $96,288. And this is what you want to do -you want to be a savings overachiever!
Over time, compounding makes a huge gap between people who contribute the minimum versus those who save more. To examine this, let’s consider two employees: Minimum Mike and Saver Sally. They both have the same salary of $45,000 and earn 3% raises over the next 35 years. Mike contributes 3% to his 401(k) and gets the company match of 3%. Sally contributes 10% and also receives the 3% match. Both earn a return of 7% compounded annually.
Here are their account balances after 35 years:
Minimum Mike: $567,615
Saver Sally: $1,230,417
Saving 10% really does make a big difference over the length of a career. Although the news media would like for you to believe that your financial future hangs by a thread on the outcome of the Brexit, or the Presidential Election, or whatever new crisis is on that day, the reality is that the biggest determinant of your long-term wealth is likely to be the percentage you contribute.
Being average is still a lot better than being median. If you want to be above average, start by increasing your deferral rate.
There is still time to increase your 401(k) or 403(b) contribution for 2016. The maximum contribution is $18,000 for 2016, with an additional catch-up of $6,000 if you are over age 50.