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Lower Pay for a Higher 401(k) Match?

Employees overwhelmingly would refuse a job with no match, even with higher pay. But many over-rely on the match, failing to contribute enough on their own

More than four out of 10 workers (43 percent) indicated that, if offered, they would prefer to have lower compensation in return for a higher employer contribution to their 401(k), according to new research.

Workers were more likely to accept a position if it had a company match as part of its overall compensation package. Only 13 percent indicated they would take a job with no company match, even if it came with a higher pay level, found a study based on 1,027 interviews with U.S. workers conducted in November 2013 by Fidelity Investments.

“Employer contributions play a vital role in helping Americans reach their retirement savings goals. These contributions represent more than 35 percent of the total contributions on average to an employee’s workplace savings account,” said Doug Fisher, senior vice president of Workplace Investing at Fidelity, commenting on the study report. “Fidelity recommends a total retirement saving rate between 10 and 15 percent of salary to ensure employees will have enough for retirement, but many working Americans will only reach that savings level if their 401(k) contributions are complemented with a company match.”

Inertia Rules

In a separate 401(k) survey, retirement plan provider TIAA-Cref found tha many workers who contribute to an employer-sponsored retirmeent plan:

  • Did not increase their plan contribution after their last raise (57 percent of respondents).
  • Have never increased the salary percentage that they contribute to their retirement plan (36 percent).
  • Have not increased their contribution in more than one year (an additional 26 percent).

“Considering that 44 percent of American employees save 10 percent or less of their annual income each year, these findings indicate that many employees have the opportunity to improve their retirement readiness by increasing their plan contributions regularly,” according to the firm, which sponsored a poll of more than 1,000 adults nationwide in May 2014.

“Plan sponsors should have ongoing interactions with employees over the course of their careers around three critical actions: enroll in the plan, increase contributions every year and check asset allocations every year to rebalance if necessary,” said Teresa Hassara, executive vice president of TIAA-CREF's Institutional Business, to SHRM Online. “Auto-enrollment and auto-escalation options offer great benefit to overcoming employee inertia around retirement planning, but they are not universal, and they are not a substitute for employee engagement.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMsmiller.

See also:

Message to Employees: Saving 1% More Will Boost Retirement Income, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2013

How Match Thresholds and Default Rates Impact Savings, SHRM Online Benefits, May 2013

401(k) Match: 'Thresholds' Drive Participation More than Rates, SHRM Online Benefits, July 2012​

Sweet Spot: Encourage Employees to Defer Adequate Pay to 401(k)s, SHRM Online Benefits, May 2012

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