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Brett Arends’s ROI: This record-breaking figure is now the average 401(k) balance

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If you want to see the benefits of saving early for your retirement and saving with regularity, look no further than the latest report from 401(k) giant Fidelity Investments.

The average 401(k) account now has a record balance of $129,300, the company says.

But among workers who’ve held their 401(k)s for at least a decade, the figure is just over $400,000, or more than three times the overall average. And for those who’ve held their 401(k) plans for 15 years or more, the figure is now $512,000. And that’s not just a result of seniority. Fidelity calculates that even millennials who’ve held their 401(k)s for at least 15 years now have an average balance of just under $280,000.

Vote often, vote early, vote for James Michael Curley — that was the hilarious refrain among Democrats in Boston a century ago. Save often, save early should be the retirement refrain for all of us working stiffs.

Overall the latest Fidelity report shows some tentative good news on the retirement front, although, given the astonishing boom in the stock market of late, you’d hope it might be better.

Average 401(k) balances by June 30 had risen 24% in a year, while IRA balances were up 21%.

During the same 12 months, the Vanguard Total World Stock Index
VTWAX,
-0.57%

fund had risen 40% and the Vanguard Total U.S. Stock Index fund
VTSMX,
-0.06%

44%. The stock-market benchmark S&P 500
SPX,
+0.64%
,
up 0.5% early Friday, has risen 30.3% over the past year and 17.9% in 2021.

If you’re wondering how you stack up, Fidelity says the average balance for people with both a 401(k) plan and an IRA is now $389,000, the highest on record and nearly twice the level of a decade ago. (But beware of averages. Fidelity’s figures don’t reveal the median numbers, which are arguably much more representative and which will be lower. The median figure is the one in the absolute middle if you ranked everyone from top to bottom. The “average,” a.k.a. the “mean,” is more skewed by those with really big balances, the way Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and I have an “average” net worth of $120 billion.)

Fidelity says the average employee savings rate in a 401(k) plan is now a record high 9.3%, while the numbers who have borrowed money from their 401(k)s is down to 17.5%, a record low. And the retirement hack that works continues to be auto-enrolling workers in the company 401(k) plan — meaning employers sign you up for contributions unless you actively opt out.

Where the employer automatically enrolls you, on average 87% of workers stay in the plan. Where the employer doesn’t enroll you automatically, and you have to go sign up yourself, the average enrollment is just 52%. Unfortunately for those choosing to opt out, there is no choice when it comes to getting old and needing money in retirement. Aging has an auto-enrollment rate of 100%.

Now let’s hope the stock market continues to levitate.

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