Median 401(k) Balance Down to $23,000

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"A lot of times a plan sponsor will lock in a price when there were 50 people in the company and now there are 1,000 with an antiquated pricing structure," he said, instead of actively managing a 401(k) plans' fees, for example.

Gloria Moss, 66, said she was much more proactive about her retirement planning after she lost about half of her 401(k) balance in 2008 because of the downturn. An educator for a public school system in South Florida, Moss eventually recovered more than three-fourths of what she lost with the help of a financial advisor who helped her diversify her investments. Now she is "very active" in checking her retirement status and cutting back on expenses to save more.

Before losing a chunk of her retirement losses, she had hoped to retire four years ago. Now she hopes to retire in the "not too far future."

"I feel much more optimistic, in general. Not that I've had great income, but I feel like things are going in the right direction for me," she said. "Around me, I see real estate is picking up and more stores are opening."

Beth McHugh, vice president of market insights for Fidelity Investments, said she has noticed a growing culture among employers and employees of trying to save more in a smarter way.

"What we're seeing is a continued commitment from individuals and employers in the notion of embracing a culture of savings," she said.

More individuals are calling to seek guidance, McHugh said, asking, "What are the levers that I can pull to help me reach my retirement goals?"

More employers are choosing to automatically enroll employees in 401(k) plans and institute automatic employee contribution increases annually.

The median 401(k) balance at the end of this year's first quarter was $23,000, according to Fidelity Investments' quarterly report. That's mostly unchanged from the $24,000 a year ago in the same period. But it's an improvement from the first quarter of 2008, when the median 401(k) balance was $18,900.

McHugh pointed out that the median and average figures include a wide range of 401(k) participants and that the older participants tend to have a higher balance. A subset of Fidelity account holders older than 55 who had participated through 10 years had an average of $237,600.

McHugh said the rule-of-thumb is to continue saving 10 to 15 percent of your income for retirement. But "the closer you are to retirement, the more critical it is you have an age-appropriate allocation when facing a volatile market," she said.

An improving stock market is the main driver behind the increase in the average balance in the first quarter this year, accounting for 80 percent of account balance growth. Participant and employer contribution growth contributed to the remaining 20 percent boost.

The S&P 500 index, though experiencing two straight days of losses, has increased more than 11 percent year-to-date.

"Obviously, the market has been performing well and did so in the first quarter," McHugh said.

She said individual and employer contributions also tend to fluctuate based on market performance. Last year in the same period, two-thirds of balance growth was attributable to the stock market while one-third was because of participant and employer contributions.

Herman said that while 401(k) funds can be helpful savings vehicles, many employees mistakenly believe there are no fees involved.

Some plans have fees as high as 2 to 3 percent a year, which the employer or 401(k) company has not clearly disclosed.

"If you save 8 percent for your 401(k), you may be losing 2 percent of that a year without being aware of it," he said.

That will change this summer when financial regulatory reform will mandate greater transparency for 401(k) fees.

"This will be an awakening for millions of Americans who don't think they pay fees," he said. "Participants will then ask, 'Is this a reasonable fee?'"

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