Personal Finance

Do you know where your 401(k) money is going?

Million dollar retirement

If you are contributing to a retirement account, good for you. Every little bit helps when it comes to money for late in life.

But how much do you know about how it's invested?

Almost 4 in 10 people said in a recent survey that they were not familiar with their retirement plan investment options, up from 33 percent in 2014. That lack of familiarity may be contributing to their anxiety about the future. Having enough money in retirement was a concern for 46 percent of people surveyed.

That low level of awareness is "the thing that's always startling given how much we plan providers and consultants spend trying to engage and educate employees," said Ed Moslander, head of institutional client services at TIAA-CREF, which published the survey.

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Moslander is not advocating that employees start day trading their retirement accounts, or even monitoring them weekly or monthly. "These are long-term, long-held assets. You don't want to be getting in and out of them," he said. But an occasional check is important.

"I don't think people check in once a year. A lot of times, people don't check in until they are 50 or 55," he said. By that time, they have little opportunity to make up the difference if their investments or contribution choices have left them with less than they planned.

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Why aren't employees getting the message about tending to their retirement savings?

The problem may lie in how employers and retirement plan sponsors deliver the information. Retirement plan information can't just rest on a website or in brochures, experts said. Employers and plan administrators need to make sure it actually reaches workers.

"Employees are not going to search it out themselves. You have to make the process as easy as possible," said Micah Hauptman of the Consumer Federation of America. Employees need to take some responsibility for awareness of their retirement plan options, "but it can't be fully incumbent on employees. Then it's not going to work."

There is also the matter of employees' financial literacy. Americans tend to give themselves high marks for financial know-how, but on average they correctly answered less than 3 out of 5 basic financial questions in a survey by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Given that level of financial knowledge, it is critical that employers and plan administrators "boil down the complex concepts into more simple terms," said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

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There is more. "The industry has a tremendous opportunity to tailor the education based on different demographic segments," Collinson said. For example, boomers and millennials will differ in their issues relating to retirement, and customized information that addresses each group's specific concerns will penetrate better.

Women also have special issues related to retirement. "To this day, women are far more likely to take time out of the workforce, which leads to lower lifetime earnings, lower lifetime savings and lower lifetime vested benefits in things like company-sponsored retirement plans. And yet statistically, women live longer," Collinson said. Communications tailored to address women's issues around retirement will be more effective than generic information, she said.

TIAA-CREF's Moslander said his organization has found that affinity group communications are significantly more effective than the generic approach. They create information sessions tailored to women, LGBT employees, millennials and other groups, and reach out with invitations.

Employees who attend those sessions, he said, are much more likely to sign up for individual sessions where advisors work with employees on their personal retirement savings strategy.

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The big challenge with all retirement plan information is cutting through everything else on employees' minds, Collinson said. "If you have a job, there is a good chance you are working really hard and tired at the end of the day. Brushing up on investment information may not be top of mind," she said.

Maybe so, but an occasional check to make sure you are on track is key to successful retirement saving.

"If I could get you to pay attention once a year, that would be a huge win," said Moslander.