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Advice | Stock market rebound put more workers into 401(k) millionaires club


One thing’s for sure about people who reach that rarefied status in their workplace retirement accounts: They are not easily spooked.

They stayed the course over decades of stock market turbulence, riding the ups and downs to becoming 401(k) millionaires.

New data from Fidelity Investments found the number of employees with 401(k) balances over $1 million spiked 26 percent in the second quarter, to 378,000, compared with 299,000 at the end of 2022. The average 401(k) balance for these investors was $1.5 million.

“We found that a growing number of people understand that saving for retirement is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Mike Shamrell, Fidelity’s vice president for workplace thought leadership.

Fidelity’s 401(k) and IRA millionaires club is relatively small — 1.6 and 2.5 percent of Fidelity’s investors in those categories, respectively — but it’s growing again after falling for most of 2022. The number of workers with $1 million or more in their 401(k)s and IRAs hit all-time highs of 442,000 and 376,100 respectively at the end of 2021, with a median balance of $1.3 million for those investors.

The news was good for non-millionaire investors as well: Average retirement account balances climbed for the third straight quarter.

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Workers who contributed steadily to their plans, even when the stock market took some heart-clutching dives, have seen a payoff in their account balances, according to Fidelity, the largest administrator of workplace retirement accounts. The company provides a quarterly analysis of more than 45 million individual, 401(k) and 403(b) retirement accounts.

The average 401(k) balance for the second quarter increased to $112,400, up 4 percent from the previous three months. IRA and 403(b) balances experienced nearly 5 percent bumps from the first quarter, to $113,800 and $102,400, respectively.

Overall, retirement investors have showed resilience as account balances have seesawed, Shamrell said.

One particularly encouraging analysis from Fidelity looked at young workers. It’s often hard to persuade younger adults to save for retirement, especially if they are saddled with student loans.

But the number of Gen Z workers investing in 401(k) accounts was up 66 percent year-over-year. The number of young investors, ages 18 to 35, in individual retirement accounts rose 34.4 percent.

Many young borrowers used the nearly three-year payment pause for federal loans to save for retirement, with 72 percent contributing at least 5 percent to their 401(k)s, compared with only 63 percent before the payment pause, according to Fidelity.

There is concern borrowers will pull back on saving for retirement. The end of the student loan payment pause in October could make it difficult for those borrowers to continue making contributions, Shamrell said.

Before the payment pause, 3 in 10 eligible employees with student loan debt were not contributing to their retirement plans, according to Fidelity.

Legislation passed late last year might help keep student loan borrowers on the retirement savings track. One provision of Secure Act 2.0 will allow employers starting in 2024 to make contributions to workers’ retirement accounts based on their student loan payments.

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It’s as if the loan payments were a traditional retirement plan contribution. It means borrowers don’t have to choose between paying off the debt and missing out on a company match. Plan sponsors are not required to offer this feature, but it would be a tremendous benefit for employees who are still paying for their education.

Despite the increase in retirement account balances in the first half of the year, it might be hard to see those gains drop again because of market volatility. But this is when you have to calm yourself.

Last fall, when stocks began to recover, many investors had themselves convinced that we’d be dealing with runaway inflation for a while or that the economy was headed for a recession, according to Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.

Benz pointed out that the U.S. stock market has risen since bottoming out in October. Since then, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index and the S&P 500 have risen about 17 percent, as of Thursday’s close.

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“Stocks’ swift recovery is a good illustration of the value of not dumping them in the face of weak performance,” Benz said. “While selling into weakness might relieve stress on a short-term basis, it can be hard to know when to get back in.”

Inflation isn’t where the Federal Reserve wants it to be, but it’s been coming down. Prices rose 3.2 percent in July, the first year-over-year increase after 12 months of declines but far from where it was last summer, when inflation peaked at 9.1 percent.

“If you wait until everything is lining up in favor of stocks, you’ve often missed the best part of the rally,” Benz said.

The historical data — although not a guarantee of future results — shows a pattern that should be encouraging to investors, particularly young adults with decades until retirement.

Here’s how to emulate the habits of 401(k) millionaires.

  • As soon as you can, contribute enough to get the full company match. Avoid taking 401(k) loans.
  • During your career, as you move from job to job, don’t cash out of your plan. Let the money be.
  • Follow Fidelity’s recommendation to save at least 15 percent of pretax income annually for retirement. This figure would include any employer match.
  • Invest for growth, and don’t rashly react to the daily movements of the stock market. If you’re unsure of your ability to manage your retirement holdings, consider a target-date fund. Most target-date funds hold a mix of stocks, bonds and other investments. This type of investing is designed to become more conservative as an investor gets closer to a particular retirement date. Target-date funds are generally higher in equities for younger investors.

The majority of 401(k) savers in the Fidelity analysis stayed the course and did not make significant changes to their retirement savings, the company said.

“You have to take a long-term approach and do your best not to react to short-term market dynamics,” Shamrell said.

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

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POST AUTHOR: Michelle Singletary

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