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Don’t look a gift employer in the mouth

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 3 Comments

Even if you’re not a news junkie like me, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve seen or heard one news item ad infinitum over the past several years. That nugget is the story about Americans’ retirement readiness, or lack thereof. We are endlessly informed by the media that we’re not ready to retire — and that we won’t be ready unless we start banking lots more dough.

Years ago, there wouldn’t have been a need for newspapers and magazines and broadcasters to hammer this mantra into our heads. That’s because the rules were different then. You were hired by an employer, you worked there your whole work life, you earned your pension and retired. You then lived off your pension and Social Security. A few years later, you drifted off to the Happy Hunting Grounds, leaving whatever was left of your nest egg to your children and grandkids.

Since then, we’ve had an almost perfect storm of happenings that have led us to this point of non-retirement readiness. First, pensions began to be phased out by employers in the 1980s and ’90s, being replaced by defined contribution plans — such as 401ks — that today dominate the retirement savings landscape.

Many have wrongly underestimated the significance of this development, one keen observer told me recently. What that shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans essentially accomplished was to take decision-making out of the capable hands of financial experts heading employer pension plans and put it in the butter fingers of average Americans without a personal finance clue.

At the same time, advancements in medical science were adding years to the length of the average life span. That meant you no longer bought the farm a few years after traditional retirement age, but two to four decades afterward. And like icing on a catastrophic cake, now there is the danger that Social Security and Medicare benefits will be pared back, leaving oldsters even more exposed.

In short, once upon a time, financial experts with years or even decades of experience made determinations about the funding of retirements that were short in duration and buttressed by Social Security checks. And today, Joe and Jane Sixpack — whose first and foremost priority in life is watching each and every episode of “Dancing with the Stars” — make the decisions about funding their retirements, which are long in duration and may not be so ably assisted by Social Security payments.

And the media world’s talking heads label it “news” that we’re not prepared?

Take what’s coming

If you are among the legions who are behind in funding your retirement, you’ll need to maximize every single opportunity to save. Your employer may not be doling out pensions. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t closely scrutinize each offering the boss does provide to help you bank crucial retirement bucks.

The very first place to focus is upon your own employer’s 401k plan. According to research by Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Aon Hewitt, the talent, retirement and health solutions business of Aon PLC, 82 percent of Americans in their 50s are indeed participating in their 401k plans. That means 18 percent — almost one in five — are not participating, possibly because they believe they will be flattened by Elvis’s UFO on the day they retire.

Next, if at all possible, ensure you are saving at a level that will qualify you for your employer’s match, which generally kicks in at three percent.

Aon Hewitt reports that 80 percent of people participating in their employers’ 401k plans are saving at rates enabling them to garner full matches from employers.

So again, something like one in every five is leaving free money on the table. The employer match is like a fountain of gratis greenbacks showering toward your retirement piggy bank. If it is at all possible for you to do so, make sure your hands are cupped to gather them in.

If you’re 50 or older, you can save at a higher rate than those under 50, thanks to what’s called “catch-up contributions” that allow you to funnel an extra $5,500 a year into your employer’s 401k plan.

In essence, there’s a maximum dollar amount that can be saved. For those under 50, it’s $17,500; for those above that threshold, it’s $23,000. The chance to save more per year in a tax-privileged plan could mean a much larger stash of retirement savings for you to whittle away playing golf and sailing your sailboat.

Grab other offerings

Once you have begun funding your 401k to the maximum level of your ability, look around for other cash grabs your employer may make available. Let’s say you don’t want to fully retire in your 60s or 70s but want to transition into the kind of “encore career” for which you’ve always yearned.

Many employers offer partial or full tuition reimbursement. Plan your late-stage training well enough, and you could conceivably go back to school, use the employer-tuition reimbursement to fund your training, and still be able to work a mandated one or two years for your employer after finishing your training.

Also take a look at any corporate discounts that might be available. According to retirement funding experts, this is one place average Americans too often leave cash on the table. That’s cash that could finance your retirement lifestyle.

In conclusion, you may not be able to do anything about the yammering media refrain about lack of retirement readiness. But you can do something about the free retirement goodies your employer offers as a benefit of employment. You’ve given your bosses a lot. Let them give you something for a change.

Published on June 18th, 2014
Modified on June 16th, 2014 - 3 Comments
Filed under: Retirement, Saving & Investing

About the author: is an independent writer in Chicago who has written over 2,000 articles appearing in publications such as Barron's, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times, and more.

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3 Responses to “Don’t look a gift employer in the mouth”

  1. 1
    Susan Says:

    Amen! I work with a friend who is in her mid-50s. After her last company severed all their employees, she (IMHO foolishly) cashed out her 401k money to make home improvements. Now she says she “can’t afford” to contribute to her employer’s 401k plan. She doesn’t understand when I tell her she can’t afford NOT to!

    My husband and I have scrimped and saved and counted pennies all our lives – but we both put aside at least 10% of our salaries into our company’s 401k plans. We don’t new cars, new kitchens, or fancy clothes, but our priorities were funding our retirement and providing for our children’s education.

  2. 2
    cg Says:

    It doesn’t seem that your article takes the fact that many employers don’t match 401k at all. I haven’t had an employer in ten years matched funds at all. I know many of the folks that you mentioned probably aren’t saving at all, but some of them could be funding their Roth IRA instead. There are likely others that are funding their 401k, but should be funding their Roth IRA instead because their employer doesn’t match. When 401k accounts were first introduced, it seemed like most employers would match their employees funds to some extent. Eventually it seemed like many didn’t care about helping their employees retire.

  3. 3
    The Wallet Doctor Says:

    It can be good for everyone who is interested in being set for retirement to look hard for those bargains to be found. Its especially important if you need to catch up, but worth it to consider for everyone

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