NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The average 401(k) account has $72,800 in it, according to a study by Fidelity Investments -- hardly enough to support a lengthy retirement. To increase savings, plan sponsors are trying a variety of techniques. One of the most promising is an effort to redesign the statements that savers receive.
For decades, a typical 401(k) statement has displayed account balance. But new approach also shows a saver the monthly retirement income that this balance would support. Someone with $50,000 might be told that the account would provide monthly retirement income of $275.
Seeing a monthly income figure could have a big impact on savers. According to a study by Principal Financial Group, participants who know their monthly income save 46% more than plan participants who don't.
"The monthly number motivates people to get in there and increase their savings rates," says Noelle Fox, a retirement analyst for Principal Financial.
Fox says the monthly figures jolt people with a more realistic picture of their retirement outlooks.
"Some people see that they have a balance of $50,000 and figure that is a lot of money," she says. "It is a huge wakeup call when they realize that the balance will only generate a small amount of monthly income."
Many people don't need the monthly figures to understand that their nest eggs are puny. Consulting financial planners or online calculators, these savers discover that they should save $1 million or more to provide secure lifetime income.
A Reality-Check That Motivates
Confronted by that big number, some 401(k) participants give up and stop trying to increase their savings. But these discouraged employees may become more eager to save after consulting the monthly income figures. By thinking in those terms, these savers settle on a realistic goal, such as increasing income from $300 to $500.
Under current law, 401(k) plans must tell participants their balances, but not monthly income. That would be changed under legislation proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. The legislation calls for disclosing the monthly lifetime income that savers would receive if their balances were used to purchase annuities.
To help savers understand their retirement outlooks, more companies are beginning to alter their websites and statements. In an innovative approach, Putnam offers plan participants a website that automatically updates monthly income figures. Savers who are dissatisfied with the figures can slide bars to see what they can do change the outlook.
Say a participant is putting 4% of salary into his 401(k). By sliding a bar, the saver can instantly see how monthly income would increase if he put aside 5% or 6%. Those who want to increase their savings can change their contribution rates with a couple of clicks.
Putnam says that the new website is having a big impact on the savings habits of its plan participants. Among those using the new features, 30% have changed their savings rates. Of those, 80% have increased their savings.
"We have found that within six to nine months after the new features are introduced, the average saving rates can increase substantially," says Edmund Murphy, who heads Putnam's defined contribution plans.
Most plans still don't offer ways to estimate monthly retirement income. For a rough gauge, you can consult an online calculator. An easy one to use is Fidelity's Retirement Quick Check. Fill out details like your age, tax rate and the amount of assets you have, and it will estimate the monthly income you can expect.
If your estimate comes up short, play with the calculator and see the impact of adjusting your plans. By delaying retirement several years, you may improve the picture a bit. But the most effective way to boost retirement income is by saving more. Fox of Principal Financial says people need to save at least 11% of their salaries. By setting aside that much, savers can insure a solid monthly income in retirement.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Stan Luxenberg is a freelance writer specializing in mutual funds and investing. He was executive editor of Individual Investor magazine.