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By Ana Lucia Murillo
July 16, 2021
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Studies show auto enrolling workers in 401(k) plans can make saving for retirement a lot easier. The problem? Only one in three companies actually does it.

Financial investment management and insurance company Principal surveyed their retirement plan participants in May of this year and 84% say they began saving earlier than they otherwise would have because their employer auto-enrolled them in a 401(k).

As the pandemic eases in the U.S. many workers consider saving for retirement to be their top financial priority, and employers aren’t meeting them where they are. That lack of help from some employers may leave many Americans unprepared for retirement.

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“I think data conclusively shows over and over again, people don't tackle complex problems,” says Sri Reddy, senior vice president for retirement and income solutions at Principal. “I think that’s why auto-enrollment creates such value for participants…. You’re making it easy.”

Perks like auto-enrollment and offering a company match have been shown to help workers save more. Increased levels of auto-enrollment could help Black and Latino workers save more in particular; those groups currently save less for retirement than their white counterparts.

Almost half of workers surveyed by Principal say their employer offering a company match would be the number one factor encouraging them to put aside more for retirement.

The average company match, for those that do offer the feature, is around 4%. That means a worker would be saving 8% of their salary, 4% of their own money and a matching 4% from their employer. That's still below the 10% to 15% of your income experts say you should put aside to have enough to live a comfortable retirement.

A bill currently working its way through Congress, if passed, would require employers to automatically enroll their eligible workers in company 401(k)s and 403(b)s and set their contribution rate to 3%, gradually boosting it every year until they reach 10%. The bill, called SECURE Act 2.0, would arguably only affect a small percentage of workers since almost 70% of large employers already auto-enroll their employees in their retirement plans.

So what's keeping employers from making the move on their own? It may be inertia, as much as anything. According to a 2017 survey of small business owners by the Pew Charitable Trusts, business owners that don’t offer auto-enrollment say they are happy with their plan’s “current setup,” and 4 in 10 said they didn’t think their employees would want to be automatically enrolled. Few business owners said cost was one of the barriers to auto-enrollment.

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