NEW YORK – How's your 401(k) doing?
President Donald Trump likes to ask that question around the country, sometimes throwing out big gains like 90% or 95%. The average 401(k) did indeed hit a record last year, although its growth was considerably less than that.
The average 401(k) balance rose 17% last year to $112,300 from the end of 2018, according to a review of 17.3 million accounts by Fidelity Investments. The average individual retirement account, or IRA, balance rose the same percentage to $115,400.
Those figures are averages, not medians, and the typical 401(k) might be closer to a quarter of that. The top 1% of 401(k) savers has more than $1 million in each of their accounts, which skews the average higher.
Surging markets around the world were a big reason for growth across accounts in 2019: The S&P 500 index had one of its best years in decades with a 31.5% return. Investments of all types logged gains, from junk bonds to stocks from developing economies.
But workers' better savings habits also played a big role.
Fidelity said the average worker set aside 8.9% of their pay in their 401(k) in the fourth quarter, a record. Combined with employer matches, the average total savings rate was 13.5% in the quarter, tying its record last reached in spring 2019.
“Nobody can control the market, so the behaviors of people contributing to their 401(k)s are what get us the most excited,” said Katie Taylor, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity. “We have people saving 13.5%, which is really close to the 15% that we recommend. That's a great story.”
In many cases, workers may not even realize they're saving more. Most employers give the option for workers to automatically increase their contributions each year, without having to do anything. Some employers even automatically sign up their employees for these auto-escalation programs, requiring them to opt out if they don't want their contribution levels to steadily rise.
Such features are on top of programs where employers automatically enroll new hires in the 401(k) plan. They all lean on the power of inertia to help workers build up bigger nest eggs. It's a sharp turnaround from earlier years when workers had to take an extra step to join the 401(k) plan and fill out paperwork whenever they wanted their contribution levels to change.