401(k) Balances Increased Sharply Since The Recession

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Nest eggs in 401(k) accounts are on the rise, a new survey says.

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IRA and 401(k) provider Fidelity Investments reports its average 401(k) balance stands at $88,600 at the end of the first quarter of this year, a 9% year-over-year increase. This balance is a staggering 92% higher since the first quarter of 2009, during the height of the financial recession, when the stock market reached record lows.

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Still, retirement savings remains a murky financial goal, often interrupted by other financial tasks.

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"We understand that saving for retirement competes with numerous financial goals such as the purchase of a home, college tuition and the escalating costs of health care in retirement," said Julia McCarthy, executive vice president of workplace investing at Fidelity.

The 2008 financial recession not only resulted in a massive loss of wealth, it also altered investors' views of the stock market.

According to a Gallup poll from early 2014, half of participants were opposed to investing $1,000 in the stock market, compared to 62% after the recession almost six years ago. However, the broad S&P 500 has increased 175% since its March 2009 low, indicating the magnitude to which investors have missed out on significant wealth-building opportunities over the past several years.

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When it comes to building a more sustainable 401(k) account, TIAA-CREF's director of financial planning Dan Keady stresses the distinction between a 401(k)'s nest egg and income. "It's not just the amount of money in your 401(k) that you need to be aware of, but it's ultimately the amount of income you can generate from that nest egg to live off of," he said.

To deal with this dynamic, think about how your financial landscape will bode during retirement. You may have your mortgage paid off, but you'll likely have greater health care costs. Take advantage of online calculators to determine the amount of money you'll need in a 401(k) to allow interest to generate enough income to support your lifestyle.

Beyond understanding the underlying functions of a 401(k), be sure to take advantage of your employer's match. If you haven't checked your 401(k) statements, you may be missing out on free money, since the amount of money you're currently contributing may not be up to the employer's full match.

"Also, when you started at the company, your salary may have been too low to qualify for the employer' match," Keady said. "Double-check to make sure your current salary is reflected in your 401(k) contributions."

When it comes to 401(k)s, it's critical to think of this money for retirement purposes only. "Don't use the balance as a piggy bank," Keady advised.

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If you're under age 59.5, you'll have to pay a 10% penalty for withdrawing money in a 401(k), not to mention ordinary income taxes. Plus, should you claim bankruptcy in the future, money in a 401(k) account is usually protected.

- Written for MainStreet by Scott Gamm, author of MORE MONEY, PLEASE.

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