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401(k) Plans Serve as Wealth Dividing Line

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Who stands the best chance of saving money for retirement? A man in his 30s who works full time for a large company. The worst chance? A woman in her 20s who works part time for a smaller company.

The reputation of U.S. 401(k) plans was hurt as much as Americans' investments during the economic recession and stock-market meltdown. Magazines, newspapers and Web sites, reacting to drained retirement savings, have concluded that depending on 401(k) plans for a secure retirement may be a failed experiment.

But the latest counterstrike to the naysayers comes from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies and the results of its 11th annual retirement survey released this week. The findings show that the mere availability of 401(k) and similar employee-funded retirement plans can mean the difference between comfortable golden years and near-poverty.

The study draws its conclusions from a poll of 3,598 full-time and part-time workers conducted by Harris Interactive between Dec. 3, 2009, and Jan. 18, 2010.

According to the center's research, of workers who are offered a plan, 77% participate and two-thirds are saving for retirement outside of the plan provided by their employer. By comparison, only 57% of those not offered a plan are saving outside of work. Plans outside work include individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which offer a wider range of investment categories, such as exchange traded funds, stocks and even precious metals.

In addition, employees who are offered a 401(k) plan or similar arrangement are more likely to agree that they're building a large enough retirement nest egg (45%), compared with workers who aren't offered a plan (27%).

More workers without a plan expect to retire after age 70 or not at all (4%, compared to 36% with a plan), and a higher percentage of those without a plan expect to rely on Social Security as their primary source of retirement income (31% versus 20%).

"We all know that, even today, Social Security benefits are barely enough to cover basic living expenses," says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. "What is even more startling is that among those who do not have access to a plan, 22% do not plan to retire at all."

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