401(k) Savers Go Deeper in Debt

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — One step forward, two steps back. While Americans are saving more for retirement, many are also going even deeper into debt. The treadmill is starting to run in reverse. Over 60% of workers participating in an employer sponsored retirement plan accumulated more debt than they contributed to their retirement savings between 2010 and 2011, according to research conducted by HelloWallet.com.

The study looked at data from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Census Bureau and found that one in five participants in 401(k) retirement plans particularly added more credit card debt to their family balance sheet than they contributed to retirement savings.

"Through retirement plans and social security taxes, the average 401(k) participant now contributes over 11% of their paycheck to retirement savings every month, yet the typical worker near retirement has only about 2 years of replacement income saved," says HelloWallet founder and CEO Matt Fellowes. "The growth in household debt is one big reason why retirement readiness is so stubbornly low."

The research also revealed that monthly debt payments for households nearing retirement increased by 69% between 1992 and 2010, and now totals $0.22 for every $1.00 earned by 401(k) plan participants close to retiring.

Retirement plan participants who accumulate debt faster than retirement savings, called "debt savers" in the study, have 50% less of their annual income saved for retirement compared to participants who contribute more to their retirement funds than they accumulate in debt. That translates into two years of replacement income saved, compared to four years for non-debt savers.

Participants who are mounting debt faster than retirement savings are typically over 40 years old, college educated, earn more than $50,000, and don't have adequate emergency savings. Nearly half (47%) are in the highest income quartile. About 44% of "debt savers" earn more than $91,000.

And the tendency to acquire more debt than retirement savings does not seem to correlate with poor economic conditions, according to the research.

"While there is no question about the fundamental value and importance of the 401(k), our research finds that it is just one piece of the puzzle," said Fellowes. "Until we work on improving all components of retirement readiness, it will be very hard for employers to fundamentally move the needle."

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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