Company News »

Participation in 401(k) Plans Rises as More Companies Automatically Enroll

Business Wire
Share on StockTwits
Published on

Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE:WFC) announced today an uptick in the percentage of employees participating in 401(k) plans administered by the firm. The number of eligible employees participating in Wells Fargo-administered plans rose 13% between 2011 and 2015. Wells Fargo administers 401(k) plans for 3.8 million eligible participants employed by U.S. companies. The increase in participation correlates to an increase in plan sponsors opting for automatic enrollment of their participants, which now stands at 40% of Wells Fargo-administered plans versus 30% in 2011.

The data show increasing participation rates among younger employees, new hires and lower-earning workers over the past four years. Participation in the 401(k) plan among millennials has reached 55% compared to 45% in 2011. For newly hired eligible employees (meaning those who have reached the one year mark of employment), participation has increased from 36% four years ago to 48% in 2015. In addition, employees in a pay range of $20,000 to $40,000 in salary are participating at a rate of 59% versus 47% four years ago.

“This is a great set of data demonstrating some very positive behaviors from participants. I get very excited when I see the percentage of employees enrolling in plans ticking up over the last four years because it tells me people understand that participation in their workplace retirement plan is vital,” said Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust. “We know that systematic, pre-tax savings and investing works. The first critical step along that journey is to get people in the plan. In addition, to see such gains among people who are historically the hardest to get saving for retirement is also quite encouraging. People are getting the message that their 401(k) is an important key to a viable retirement.”

Savings rates, company match and average balances

Although participation rates are rising, the deferral rates are relatively flat in the four-year analysis, with 38% of participants saving a minimum of 10% of their salary (which may include employer match) in their 401(k) plan – a modest increase from 34% four years ago. Twenty-eight percent of millennials currently reach a total contribution of 10% of pay, compared to 35% of Gen X and 45% of boomers.

Sixty-two percent of all active participants are taking full advantage of their employer match. When analyzed by generational groups, this breaks down to 54% of millennials, 63% of Gen X, and 70% of boomers who are contributing enough to capture their full company match.

The average 401(k) balance is $93,015 – up from $69,802 four years ago, largely due to gains in the stock market.

The number of people with a loan from their 401(k) has remained flat; 19% have at least one loan.

“Participating in the plan is the first step, but what we really need to see is a more robust increase in how much people are saving,” said Ready. “The reality is that people need to save their way to retirement. This is true for all generations, and especially so for the younger population that has time on its side and can take advantage of the compounding effect of time. At the very least, we like to see people reap the full benefit of their employer match because that’s a nice boost for their savings that doesn’t come out of their pocket.”

Roth 401(k) popular among millennials

The Roth 401(k) usage is creeping up – with 12% of participants contributing to a Roth 401(k) compared to 8% four years ago. Millennials are the most significant users of Roth, with 16% contributing to a Roth 401(k), versus 11% of Gen X and 7% of boomers. The Roth 401(k) allows participants to contribute after-tax dollars, and withdraw in retirement on a tax-free basis.

“The decision to contribute after-tax money to a Roth 401(k) is an intentional one, because people typically are not automatically enrolled into Roth 401(k) plans,” said Ready. “I am encouraged that the younger participant group is putting thought into what can be a tax diversification strategy when it comes time to take money out of plans in retirement.”

Millennials are the most diversified in their 401(k) investment portfolio

Roth 401(k) usage is not the only category in which millennials have Gen X and boomers beat. Millennials are still the most diversified generation, and are making the biggest gains: 82% are meeting a minimum level of diversification – a minimum of two equity funds and a fixed income fund and less than 20% in employer stock – which is up from 72% four years ago. Gen X and boomers have also seen strong gains in this category, with 78% and 75% respectively meeting the minimum level of diversification (compared to 70% and 68% four years ago).

This improved diversification is most likely due to the broader use of managed investment products, which continue to gain in popularity. Overall, 76% of participants use a managed product (such as target-date funds, which is seeing specific gains from 47% to 62% of participants who have money in target-date funds), versus 65% four years ago. When comparing by generation, 83% of millennials, 75% of Gen X and 70% of boomers use some type of managed product in their 401(k) plan.

Women participate at higher rate than men

In a review of data compiled from 2,036 companies where gender is indicated, there are also some noteworthy differences. Women participate in their 401(k) plans at a slightly higher rate than men: 65% to 62%. The number of women saving at least 10% of their salary is slightly lower: 38% of women vs. 40% of men contribute at least 10% of their salary, and 64% of men are taking full advantage of their company match, compared to 61% of women. Women use managed products more than men – 77% of women compared to 74% of men – which might explain why they are better diversified. Eighty percent of women are meeting minimum diversification criteria compared to 78% of men.

EDITORS AND REPORTERS: Retirement Savings Tips

Get started saving today

If you have the option to join your employer’s 401(k) plan, enroll today and contribute up to $18,000 per year; participants age 50 and older can make up to $6,000 in additional catch-up contributions each year (unless their plan has lower limits or doesn’t offer catch-up contributions). Pay yourself first and save as much of your salary as you can on a tax-advantaged basis. If you do not have access to a workplace retirement plan, you can set up an automatic savings program and make systematic contributions of up to $5,500 if you are under age 50, or $6,500 if you are age 50 or older through regular contributions to a Roth IRA (with after-tax dollars) or a traditional IRA (with pre-tax dollars) if you meet eligibility requirements.

Get the company match – if it’s offered

If you are contributing to a 401(k), find out if there’s a company match. If there is, consider taking full advantage of it. Remember that the money your employer contributes on your behalf can be added to the amount you’re contributing, and combining the two contributions helps give your overall savings goal a boost.

Increase your rate of savings

Research shows that the #1 factor in saving for retirement is your contribution rate, and regular contribution rate increases. Find out if your employer’s plan offers the option to increase your contribution amount automatically and on a regular basis. That’s one less thing to remember and it’s an easy way to help you gradually save more in preparation for retirement. You can always change the increase rate or limit for your automatic retirement plan contributions.

Find out what type of investor you are

Your asset allocation is the “big picture” – the way you divide your investments among the three basic investment categories: stocks, bonds, and stable value investments. Knowing your investor type – conservative, moderate, or aggressive – can provide a good starting point for determining which asset allocation makes the most sense for you. Use an online tool like to help you determine your risk tolerance.

Leave your savings alone

It may be tempting to spend your savings if you change jobs or have an unexpected expense pop up, but it is important to keep these assets growing in a tax-favored retirement account. Withdrawing money from your employer-sponsored plan can erode your retirement savings to the point where you may jeopardize your financial security in retirement. Keep your money working for you!

About Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE:WFC) is a nationwide, diversified, community-based financial services company with $1.7 trillion in assets. Founded in 1852 and headquartered in San Francisco, Wells Fargo provides banking, insurance, investments, mortgage, and consumer and commercial finance through more than 8,700 locations, 12,500 ATMs, and the internet ( and mobile banking, and has offices in 36 countries to support customers who conduct business in the global economy. With approximately 266,000 team members, Wells Fargo serves one in three households in the United States. Wells Fargo & Company was ranked No. 30 on Fortune’s 2015 rankings of America’s largest corporations. Wells Fargo’s vision is to satisfy all our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially. Wells Fargo perspectives are also available at Wells Fargo Blogs and Wells Fargo Stories.

Share on StockTwits