Another Sign the Doomsayers Are Wrong

There have been plenty of reasons to think that anyone trying to save for retirement is destined to fail. But amid all the gloom and doom, investors got some good news for a change, as it looks like people are starting to make smarter moves with their money.

One of the most important tools workers have to save toward retirement is their employer-sponsored retirement account. Millions of workers have 401(k) plan accounts in which they can put money aside for their golden years on a tax-favored basis. Earlier this month, Fidelity treated us to a sneak peek at its 401(k) customer base and what they're doing to preserve their financial resources in a tough time for the economy.

Inch by inch
Slowly but surely, it appears that savers are making progress toward a healthier financial picture. Fidelity said that in 2011, the average employee contribution to their 401(k) plans rose to $5,750, up from $5,680 in 2010. On average, workers saved more than 8% of their annual salaries.

Still, workers also clearly have a lot of work left to do. The average account balance was just $69,100, making it clear that a 401(k) account alone isn't going to give most savers enough money to get by in retirement.

Making smarter choices
At the same time, more investors are using smarter investment options in their 401(k) accounts. For years, many savers simply used a default money market fund -- an option that right now pays next to nothing in income. As rules have changed to allow employers to use target-date retirement funds as default options, however, more workers have used them. Fidelity said that nearly half of all participants who were 35 years old or younger put their entire retirement savings in one of their target-date fund options.

In addition, investors aren't as jumpy as they once were, even during a year in which the stock market made some wild swings and ended up basically flat for 2011. Fidelity said that only about 10% of its participants exchanged money from one 401(k) investment option to another in 2011, suggesting that savers are more in tune with the long-term perspective for their retirement savings.

Getting help
Most interesting to me, though, was the information Fidelity gave about employers. Of those actively participating in 401(k) plans, 82% of workers got contributions from their employers into their retirement accounts in 2011. Those funds came largely either from matching contributions by employers or through profit-sharing arrangements.

The trend toward greater employer participation in helping workers build up their 401(k) accounts is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's excellent news that employers are once again in a position to help their workers with their retirement. During the market meltdown, Ford (NYS: F) , Weyerhaeuser (NYS: WY) , and Micron Technology (NAS: MU) were just a few of the dozens of major employers that decided to suspend matching contributions to their 401(k) accounts. Yet these companies -- along with many of the others that suspended matching -- have restored their 401(k) matches now that the economy has recovered.

On the other hand, employers may choose to contribute to 401(k) plans in lieu of even more attractive arrangements for workers. In the past month, General Motors (NYS: GM) and Bank of America (NYS: BAC) have both chosen to freeze existing pension plans, instead pushing thousands of workers toward 401(k)-based retirement accounts. Even with matching, 401(k)s can be a lot less costly for employers than traditional pensions -- and they also shift the risk involved in having to figure out viable investments to meet pension obligations onto their workers.

You're not doomed
The latest news from Fidelity doesn't mean that you'll effortlessly get everything you need in retirement. Setting up a viable financial strategy for your 401(k) account can take a lot of hard work. But what the survey does tell us is that workers are up to the task -- and they're doing the right things to prove the doomsayers wrong.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is unusually optimistic at the moment. You can follow him on Twitter here. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Bank of America, and Weyerhaeuser. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors and Ford, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy will never quit on you.

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