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Americans Say 401(k) Investments Are Harder to Understand than Health Care Benefits

By Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK (MainStreet)--American workers with 401(k) plans are saving more but stressing-out on how to invest their retirement assets. And they're looking for some professional advice, according to a new survey released by Schwab Retirement Plan Services.

Most respondents (61%) say the 401(k) is their largest - and in fact only - retirement savings and more than half (55%) are kicking-in higher contributions. And a big majority (70%) says that their nest egg is in better shape now than ever before. All good news. But then the worries begin: more than half (52%) say that 401(k) investments are harder to understand and more confusing than their health care benefits.

Americans believe 401(k) plans are difficult to decipher. In fact, saving for retirement is stressful for a third of participants, who worry about how to properly invest their contributions to the myriad of available investments. Most (57%) wish there was an easier way to figure out how to choose the right 401(k) investments.

And investors are saying they need more than an occasional 401(k) educational workshop. Of the 1,000 plan participants surveyed, 61% want personalized investment advice for their 401(k), with help on everything from asset allocation to risk tolerance and retirement income planning.

The survey found that investment confidence nearly doubles when workers have the help of a financial professional. Approximately one-third (32%) of survey participants expressed confidence in making the right 401(k) investment choices based on their own ability, compared to 61% if they also had the help of a financial professional.

"Getting more workers engaged in professional 401(k) advice should be a top priority for employers. We've seen the positive impact it can have on both behaviors and outcomes," says Steve Anderson, head of Schwab Retirement Plan Services. "Participants who used third-party, professional 401(k) advice tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions."

Other findings from the survey show respondents are engaged and place a priority on their 401(k):

  • Given a choice about how to use a $5,000 bonus, nearly two-thirds (64%) would save it in their 401(k) rather than take the cash now. 48% immediately chose the 401(k) route and an additional 16% chose the 401(k) after tax consequences were explained.
  • 74% of respondents said their 401(k)s have recovered from the financial crisis about as fast as or even faster than expected.
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) would rather pay low investment fees for index funds than pay higher fees for actively managed funds.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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