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Stop expecting an employer 401(k) plan

Employers are cutting their involvement in 401(k)s, and that's bad for workers' retirement goals.

Brian O'Connell
by Brian O'Connell, MainStreet contributor

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — About 82 million U.S. households have investments in employee-sponsored retirement plans, amounting to $17.9 trillion in investable assets in 2011, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Investment Company Institute.

A huge chunk of those assets are held in 401(k) accounts, but more and more U.S. companies are cutting back on — or cutting out — employee 401(k) matching programs in which employers “match” an employee’s 401(k) contribution up to a certain dollar amount or percentage of annual, work-related income.

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A survey from Jericho, N.Y.-based American Investment Planners notes that the number of employer 401(k) matching programs has decreased by 7 percent, leaving more Americans to fend for themselves in meeting post-retirement financial goals.

AIP’s 401(k) Performance Survey, released April 30, says 13,811 U.S. companies stopped offering 401(k) matching programs in 2010, about 5 percent of all U.S. companies. Another 2 percent cut 401(k) matching programs in 2011.

Overall, 42 percent of U.S. companies now don’t offer 401(k) plan matching for their workers.

That’s a trend financial industry professionals say will continue, given the soft economy.

"Clearly as businesses look for ways to lower expenses and improve bottom lines, it is not surprising that businesses have stopped matching,” says Brett Goldstein, director of retirement planning at American Investment Planner. “I have been studying this trend for the past four years and don't see the trend abating any time soon."

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What’s more alarming to workers is the growing number of companies cutting 401(k) plans altogether.

Since 2009 approximately 6 percent of 401(k) plans have been terminated. To make matters worse, the number of traditional defined-benefit pension plans decreased by 15 percent in 2011, Goldstein says.

Goldstein attributes that to the weak, post-recession business climate, along with significantly higher health insurance premiums, which cuts into company profit figures.

What can workers do to mitigate lost income from 401(k) matching decreases?

Not much, Goldstein says, apart from pouring more cash — scarce as it is — into individual retirement accounts or annuities. He calls those “alternative plans” that can help financial consumers meet their retirement goals.

But that means using their money, and not their employer’s cash, as is the case with 401(k) matching programs. And that’s tough to absorb for already reeling U.S. workers saving for retirement.

 

Brian O’Connell has 15 years of experience covering business news and trends, particularly in the financial, health care and career management sectors. He has written 14 books and appeared on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, C-Span, Bloomberg, CBS Radio and other media outlets and in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The Street.com. He is a former Wall Street bond trader.