Between the corporate tax cut and the tight labor market, more companies are moving to increase pay and benefits, including their contributions to retirement plans. In a January survey, one out of four employers told Willis Towers Watson that they have increased their 401(k) match this year or plan to do so next year.
But there’s a catch: If you don’t pay attention and pick the right percentage of salary to save, you could miss out on getting the full increase in the match.
Under the most common match formula, an employer contributes $1 for every $1 the employee saves up to some percent of salary---say 6%. Under the next most common arrangement, the employer contributes 50 cents for every $1 the worker puts away, up to some percent.
In a typical match increase, the employer raises the percentage of salary they’ll match—say from 5% to 7%. But to get that increase you’d have to save at least 7% of your salary. It’s called “stretching” the match in retirement-speak. “As an employee, you’ve got to put more skin in the game,” says Rick Unser, a retirement plan consultant in Hermosa Beach, California, who says he sees employers starting to make employees stretch to contributing 8% or 10% in order to get the full match.
Robert Lawton, a retirement plan consultant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has seen some radical employers moving to a 25% match on 12%, meaning workers would need to contribute 12% of pay to get the maximum employer matching contribution of 3% of pay. “You get the employees to contribute more even though the employer is contributing the same amount,” Lawton says. Usually, the employer is contributing more, and the employee is contributing more as well.
The rule of thumb is you should save 15% of your salary (including any employer match) each year for 40 years. The problem is that many workers haven’t saved anywhere near that much in the beginning of their careers, some have been in and out of the workforce, and others have been in the gig economy, where they don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan, Lawton points out, noting that a lot of workers need to be saving more than 15% of pay.
That said, here are two ways employers are trying to get their employees to at least 15% of pay saved (employee and employer contributions combined). Honeywell recently announced that in April, for workers currently getting a 75% match on the first 8% of pay, the match will increase to 87.5% (for a maximum employer match of 7%, up from 6%). For workers currently getting a 37.5% match on the first 8% of pay, the match will increase to 43.75% (for a new maximum employer match of 3.5%, up from 3%).
At Visa, employees will have to start saving 5% of salary to get the new, increased employer match, which can bring them to the 15% goal. Today Visa matches 200% of employee contributions up to 3% of salary, for a maximum employer match of 6% of pay. The new Visa match, effective in late February, will be 200% of employee contributions up to 5% of salary, for a maximum employer match of 10% of pay. In a paternalistic move, Visa will be changing its default employee pre-tax contribution from 3% to 5%—for workers who contribute less than 5%.
What if you work for a company—or are considering a job switch to one—that has a match that’s less than $1 for $1 on 6% of pay? Check if there's a profit sharing plan or a pension plan, says Rob Austin, director of research at Alight Solutions. “If not, maybe you’re behind the competition,” he says.
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