401(k)s drop amid market turmoil, rate of savings increases

Turmoil in the stock market and runaway inflation has caused alarm among retirees as those living on savings see their retirement funds dwindle.

The average 401(k) plunged nearly $10,000 in the first quarter of 2022, according to one major fund manager, as the major indexes flirted with falling into bear market territory.

“I’ve planned carefully and just retired, but then the stock market dropped 20%, and now inflation is stealing the value of money by 10% a year with no end in sight,” one recently retired investor in his 60s told The Post . “I’m down 30% the first year and dropping. Yes, I’m worried.”

And it’s not just the recently retired who are stressed about financial stability — at least 25% of Americans say they have to delay retirement as inflation eats away at money they’ve set aside.

Fidelity, which oversees more than 35 million retirement accounts, released data that found the average 401(k) account balance decreased to $121,700 in the first quarter of 2022 from $130,700 in the fourth quarter of 2021.

IRA accounts dropped to $127,100 in the first quarter from $135,600 in the fourth quarter of 2021 and 403(b) accounts fell to $107,600 in the first quarter from $115,100 in the fourth quarter of 2021.

But even as they face losses, middle-aged investors are more optimistic about their prospects — and add they are waiting to see how the market plays out before they fret too much.

“If I was retiring tomorrow I would be worried, but it’s the long game” an investor in her 40s told The Post.

Younger investors say they try not to think about where their portfolio will be in 40 or so years.

“Contributing to my 401(k) is the most adult thing I am doing these days. If it doesn’t pay off, I will be screwed,” an investor in her 20s said.

Analysts at Fidelity say it’s not necessarily the market selloff that’s to blame for dwindling retirement accounts.

“The averages fluctuate for a variety of reasons: Market performance is certainly one, as well as other factors, such as contribution levels, whether folks are taking withdrawals from their accounts, and also, the coming/going of participants,” a Fidelity spokesman told The Post.

And personal finance experts say anyone who invests must understand there are ebbs and flows in the market cycle.

fidelity investments
The amount of money in retirement accounts has dropped over the last quarter.

“The downturn in the stock market is not atypical — what was atypical was last year in 2021 where the market was up 28% with almost no downside volatility,” Greg McBride, chief financial officer for personal finance website Bankrate, told The Post.

“That was the anomaly. Over time, the market has had at least one correction every year or so,” McBride adds.

Even as savings are down this quarter, the numbers are a dramatic increase from a decade ago. In the first quarter of 2012, the average 401(k) was $74,900, the average IRA was $75,300, and the average 403(b) was $58,000.

The rate at which people are saving has soared. The savings rate for 401(k)s, which includes contributions from employers and employees, reached a record level of 14%, just marginally below the 15% Fidelity recommends saving.

And market experts say it’s important to stay focused on long-term retirement goals even when markets get spooked.

“During periods of economic uncertainty, it’s important for retirement savers to stay
focused on their long-term savings goals and not make knee-jerk reactions to short-term market events,” said Kevin Barry, president of Workplace Investing at Fidelity Investments.

“While the market’s performance does impact account balances in the near term, consistent contributions and having the right asset allocation are just as important for a successful long-term retirement savings strategy.”

Of course, investors always have the options to change their allocation amount if they get spooked.

“Speak with someone who can help you understand your risk tolerance,” Tim Speiss, a partner at personal wealth firm EisnerAmper, told The Post. “And if something changes in the economy and your risk appetite changes, you can always change your allocation.”

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