We're Just Not That Into Our 401(k)s

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — When it comes long-term relationships with their 401(k)s, workers, it seems, are kind of like bad boyfriends. They're eager to get started and say the relationship is really, really important, but their attentions fade.

That's the essence of a study by brokerage firm Charles Schwab. The findings underscore the value of good "defaults" in plan design, to steer employees to sensible investment choices when they can't be bothered to do it themselves.

The survey of 1,000 workers found that 87% described the 401(k) as a "must have" benefit, ranking it above disability insurance, life insurance and even more vacation days. But employees were less likely to get professional help in choosing and managing 401(k) investments than they were to get help doing taxes or changing the oil in their cars.

"Participants spent more time researching options for a new car (approximately 4.3 hours) or vacations (approximately 3.8 hours) than researching 401(k) investment choices (approximately 2.1 hours)," Schwab said.

Read More: The New Grads' Guide to 401(k)s

"Finally, less than one-quarter of those with access to professional 401(k) advice have used it. Among those who are currently not seeking advice, roughly half believe they would achieve better investment advice if they did so."

In fairness to these less-than-attentive workers, the handful of investment choices offered in the typical 401(k) is small compared with the number of cars for sale or vacation places for rent. Still, it's easy to go wrong, stunting the investment returns over the decades. The difference between good and bad 401(k) decisions can make the difference between a comfortable retirement and one plagued with penny-pinching. The survey found workers far more likely to seek professional advice as they approached retirement, but by then it can be too late.

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