401(k)s more confusing than health plans?

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People understand the importance of saving for retirement, but their behavior often does not match their intentions.

Some 35 percent said they were not increasing their saving because they did not want it to affect their current quality of life, according to a new survey on retirement readiness commissioned by Schwab Retirement Plan Services. And 29 percent have either decreased or made no change in their 401(k) contribution levels in the past two years.

Perhaps that's because the informational materials they receive on their 401(k) plans are often opaque. Nearly half of people surveyed (47 percent) said the information they receive on the menu of 401(k) investment options is more confusing than the materials that explain their health benefits.

Professional guidance might help. In fact, 67 percent of those surveyed said they would like advice on choosing 401(k) investments, and 49 percent believe they would see improved investment performance with professional help.

But employers have only recently started automatically providing personalized investment advice unless employees opt out, said Catherine Golladay, vice president of participant services and administration at Schwab. Among Schwab's clients, 40 to 50 percent offer automatic enrollment and about 25 percent automatically increase contribution levels (with some employers doing both), but only about 10 percent provide the automatic investment advice.

Among people surveyed, only 12 percent are receiving professional investment advice—a figure in line with what Golladay observed. The survey, by Koski Research, was based on 1,000 interviews in May and June with employees currently contributing to their 401(k) plans and working for organizations with at least 25 employees.

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Despite the confusion, Americans care about retirement savings. Nearly 3 in 4 people prefer a 15 percent gain in their 401(k) balance to losing those pesky 15 pounds, according to Schwab.

More importantly, Golladay said, the survey also found that Americans are increasingly aware that they are responsible for their financial security in retirement.

"When people think about retirement, it used to be 'Will I be healthy enough to enjoy it?'" she said. "Now the thinking is, 'I might be financing a retirement that lasts 25 to 30 years.'"

If that sounds like a concern more than a happy thought, it may well be. Just 22 percent of American workers are highly confident they will have enough money for retirement, according to the latest Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

Not surprisingly, people surveyed by Schwab indicated they would like politicians to focus more on retirement security, with 69 percent saying they would like it to be a major topic in the presidential debates.

Certainly, participating in a retirement plan at all ought to make it easier to save for retirement. Indeed, some 60 percent of the Schwab survey respondents said their 401(k) was their only or largest source of retirement savings, with or without features like automatic enrollment.

But as of 2013, only 51 percent of all American workers worked for employers that offered employment–based retirement plans, according to EBRI. A strong majority of those workers participated in the plans, but even so, that only brought the overall participation level among American workers to 40.8 percent.

"Whether or not Americans have a retirement savings plan is a key factor in their outlook about having an affordable retirement," wrote the EBRI Retirement Confidence Survey researchers.

Absent more plan offerings, Golladay argued that if more employers start providing clear, actionable information about plan features and investing, savings behavior should improve.

"When individuals think something is confusing, they can shut down. Automatic savings or automatic enrollment or education that is done in a manner conducive to adult learning" should produce better outcomes, she said. "Gone are the days when you are just standing up in front of a group of people in their workplace."