As American workers increasingly rely on employer-sponsored retirement plans as a primary source of retirement income, providers and employers need to find ways to help employees maximize this benefit. One way to achieve this goal is through automation.
Automation can be effective in helping employees start investing and ramp up their contribution levels. For example, automatic enrollment is helping more and more Americans — who might not otherwise save for retirement — make their financial future a priority by automatically placing a percentage of their salary into a default investment, usually a target-date fund or other type of balanced fund.
With automation, it’s all too common for investors to assume their retirement plan is “good to go” and therefore doesn’t need anything else — no rebalancing, no asset-allocation review, no additional savings increases. Such a “set it and forget it” mentality can leave you short of accumulating the nest egg you need to live the retirement lifestyle you want.
So, how do you balance the ease and convenience of automated features with the need to not set your retirement-planning efforts to autopilot? We’ve got five tips for you:
1. If you were auto-enrolled in your employer’s 401(k) or similar retirement-savings plan, don’t assume the target-date fund you were defaulted into is best suited for your personal situation.
Instead, create your own personalized asset allocation, or mix of investments. This is where in-plan advice, whether offered through your company as an employee benefit or through the plan administrator, can come in handy. Advisory services can help you pick the right funds and the right percentage to invest in each to best support your retirement goals — and an investing strategy tailored to you is a much better idea than throwing your money into a one-size-fits-all target-date fund.
2. If your plan offers an auto-increase feature, check to see if it’s employer- or employee-driven (i.e. does your employer opt you in, or is it up to you?).
If the latter, you’ll need to sign up yourself to reap the benefits. An automatic increase of 1% annually is a relatively painless way to gradually ratchet up your contributions. Let’s say you earn $50,000 annually. One percent of your salary is $500, which translates to saving just $41.67 per month in pre-tax income. Let’s take a look at how this annual 1% increase could impact your nest egg over time:
Frank and Tina, 35, each earn an annual salary of $50,000 and start contributing 6% to their 401(k) on the same day. However, Tina increases her contributions by 1% each year until she reaches the recommended rate of 15%. Frank continues saving 6% annually and never boosts his contribution rate. Assuming annual 3% raises and a 7% annual rate of return, Tina’s balance will be $966,395.81 in 30 years, while Frank’s balance at the same time will be $453,013.86. Tina’s nest egg is worth $513,381.95 more than Frank’s because she made small changes each year to the amount she saved.
3. Don’t assume an automatic 1% annual increase is all you need to do.
In addition to auto-increases, adjust your savings rate on your own when you receive a raise or tax refund, adjust your budget or finish paying off debt. Expecting a bonus at work this year? Immediately redirect half the amount to your retirement account. Saving more whenever possible can have a significant impact on the kind of lifestyle you can afford in your retirement years — make it standard practice and watch your nest egg grow without too much effort on your part.1
4. Sign up for auto-rebalancing, if offered.
Investors should rebalance their portfolios at least once or twice a year to evaluate for an appropriate level of risk. Don’t neglect to periodically rebalance your account yourself or enlist the help of a professional to show you what to do.
5. Review your asset allocation annually.
Now this is something that can’t be automated. Reviewing and rebalancing should include evaluating your goals, risk tolerance, investing timeline or general finances that have changed your investing needs.
At the end of the day, automation shouldn’t equal autopilot. Enjoy the ease, convenience and simplicity of automated retirement investing, but don’t forget to stay in control of your investing strategy and big-picture planning. Your retirement depends on it!