Having a hard time saving for retirement? You aren’t alone. The problem is that unless we automate the process, saving often becomes an afterthought. After all, it’s way more fun to go out to dinner, take trips and buy tech toys than it is to stash money into a long-term saving or investing vehicle.

But what if you never got a chance to get your hands on the dough? Would you miss it? Many retirement plan sponsors are trying to find out.

For years, retirement experts and academics who study behavioral finance (the intersection of psychology, sociology, business and economics) have been troubled by low enrollment levels in employer-sponsored retirement plans. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, roughly 30 percent of workers decline to participate in a 401(k) plan at work, and many workers make no change to their contribution rate or investment choices once they do sign up.

Provisions in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) helped employers address these problems. Under the auspices of the PPA, the Department of Labor blessed the automatic enrollment of workers into defined-contribution retirement plans at a default savings contribution rate (usually 3 percent), as well as default investment elections into age-appropriate “life-cycle” or “target date” funds. Enrollment also periodically escalates workers’ contributions to their 401(k) accounts automatically.

Of course, employees could always opt out of such a retirement plan, elect a different contribution rate or choose different investments, but to do so would require taking action. And, given human nature, you can guess what has happened: More employees have participated in retirement plans, and the shift has also helped workers form the retirement saving habit early in their careers — which is critical to staying on course to hit financial goals, according to behavioral economists.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one study found a whopping 48 percentage point increase in participation among newly hired employees, and the BLS found that plans with automatic enrollment have a participation rate that is 8.4 percent higher than those without the feature. “Automatic enrollment has been particularly successful at increasing 401(k) participation among employees least likely to participate in retirement savings plans — namely, employees who are young, lower paid, black or Hispanic,” the bureau stated in a report last May.

In fact, as much as we hate it in the moment, most of us respond pretty well to gentle nudging. Last year, American Century Investments conducted a survey of soon-to-be retirees and found that they would have liked their employers to have played a more active role in helping them save for retirement. More specifically, two in five wished they’d gotten “a slight nudge,” while an additional two in five preferred either “a strong nudge” or a “kick in the pants.”

Some employers have responded with something in between a gentle nudge and a kick in the pants. Some have even automatically enrolled participants at an 8-percent or even 10-percent level. They report that the employee response has been pretty much what you might expect: They accept it.

The beauty of any automatic saving or investing plan is that it takes the onus of action off individuals and even alleviates their guilty feelings that they should be doing more. In fact, whenever it’s available, consumers benefit from financial nudging, whether in retirement contributions, automatic rebalancing of investment accounts or automatic bill paying. Whenever we can extract the emotional pull of inertia from the process, we are likely to be better off.

Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed questions and comment.