According to Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest 401(k) administrator, the average account balance increased by 12 percent in 2012 to $77,300, the highest recorded since 2000. That was a dramatic turnaround from the recent low level of $46,200 in the first quarter of 2009.
Still, when adjusted for inflation, the fund company acknowledges that 401(k) balances were higher during the first half of 2000 than they are now -- ouch! While we can't erase the past, let's dive into these numbers a little more.
Here's the average year-end 401(k) balance by age group for those closer to retirement:
Ages 50 to 54 $111,900
Ages 55 to 59 $134,600
Ages 60 to 64 $133,100
Ages 65 to 69 $136,800
Not bad, but considering Fidelity's own rule of thumb for calculating retirement needs, these numbers demonstrate that there is a long road ahead for some workers to achieve adequate retirement funding. Fidelity suggests that retirement savers should accumulate about 1 times their salary by age 35, 3 times by 45, 5 times by 55 and 8 times by the time they retire at age 67.
The disconnect between the average 401(k) balances and the retirement targets may be attributable to some of the assumptions that Fidelity makes. The big one is that employees will begin working at age 25, and that they will work and save continuously until they reach 67. The Great Recession blew a hole through that one, with millions experiencing joblessness, reducing their retirement contributions and/or dipping into their retirement savings.
Fidelity also presumes that employees will make continuous annual salary contributions to a workplace plan beginning at 6 percent and escalating 1 percent per year until reaching 12 percent, and that they will receive an ongoing 3 percent annual employer match throughout their careers. (Among Fidelity plans, 82 percent of employees receive some sort of match.)
Those contribution goals have been elusive for some as they prepare for retirement, but the best news of the Fidelity report shows that many are back on track; 401(k) contribution rates averaged 11.4 percent for workers ages 65-69 (14.9 percent with match); 10.6 percent for those ages 60-64 (14.2 percent with match); 10 percent for those ages 55-59 (13.6 percent with match); and 9.2 percent for those aged 50-54 (12.7 percent with match).
Those are decent contribution rates, which should help restore the foundation of most retirement plan participants.
Here are a few more tips to help rebuild your nest egg:
Put your 401(k) plan on autopilot Many plans offer the opportunity to automatically increase annual contributions. Have the plan add 1 or 2 percent each year in order to maximize your contributions over time. Plans also can be set to auto-rebalance your allocation on a periodic basis (quarterly, biannually or annually). Using this feature can help take emotion out of the investment process.
Diversify your holdings You know that you shouldn't put too many eggs in one basket. But some participants don't realize how much overlap they may have among their retirement funds. It's far more important to diversify among asset classes (stocks, bonds, commodities and cash) than in the total number of funds. If your company stock is an option in your plan, limit your exposure to 5 percent of your holdings.
Choose index funds, when possible One way to increase your return without risk is to reduce the cost of investing. If your plan offers index funds, you may be able to save for retirement at a fraction of the cost of managed funds. If your plan is filled with expensive funds, gather your co-workers and lobby your boss to add low-cost index funds to your plan.
Beware pre-retirement withdrawals During the recession, many were forced to take withdrawals from their retirement accounts to survive. Recently, HelloWallet [a personal finance management site] found that more than 1 in 4 workers still dip into retirement savings to fund everything from mortgages to credit cards and other bills. While the IRS does allow for hardship withdrawals in certain instances, pulling money from retirement accounts should be a last resort, due to potential fees and tax implications.
Jill Schlesinger is editor-at-large for CBSMoneyWatch.com. She welomes emailed comments and questions.