DC plan participation: Set it and forget it?

Here’s the good news: A study from Aon Hewitt finds that employee participation in defined contribution (DC) plans is at an all-time high. Yet once they enroll, employees fail to make adequate adjustments to their contributions to support long-term savings goals.

For the study, Aon Hewitt reviewed more than 140 DC plans that represent 3.5 million eligible employees. It found that, on average, 78 percent of employees participated in their DC plans in 2012, up from 75 percent in 2011 and 68 percent in 2002, the first year Aon Hewitt began tracking the data. In addition, average total DC plan account balances have risen to $81,240, the highest level since 2006 and a marked increase from the $57,150 sum recorded in 2008.

Patti Balthazor Bjork, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt, attributed the rise to more companies automatically enrolling employees in their DC plans. A majority of companies – 59 percent – have auto-enrollment compared to 34 percent in 2007. On average, auto-enrolled workers had a participation rate of 81 percent, nearly 20 percentage points higher than those without automatic enrollment.

However, Aon Hewitt found that most workers take a “set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to their DC plans. Further, saving rates may be inadequate to support long-term savings goals. The average before-tax contribution rate remained flat at 7.3 percent, the same as in 2011. Workers are also not saving enough to take advantage of a company match. Over a quarter – 28 percent – of employees contributed below the company match threshold, “potentially sacrificing tens of thousands of dollars in retirement savings over the course of a person’s career,” the Aon Hewitt researchers wrote.

Bjork noted in a statement detailing the study that once auto-enrolled, “inertia takes over for many employees and they make few adjustments to their DC plans.”

Employers can counter that mindset by escalating the contribution rate. Doing so can enable employers to boost saving rates over time and bolster the employee’s long-term financial status, Bjork added.

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