Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow.

Ted Benna, the 'father of the 401(k),' has a new mission: helping small business employees save for retirement

Traditional 401(k) plans are too complex, expensive for small businesses: Ted Benna
Traditional 401(k) plans are too complex, expensive for small businesses: Ted Benna

Ted Benna is best known as the 'father of the 401(k).'

About 40 years ago, he created a savings plan with employee pre-tax and employer matching contributions. Benna, a retirement benefits consultant at the time, based it off a provision in the Tax Revenue Act of 1978 — paragraph k of section 401.

Four decades later, Benna is still working on getting more Americans access to retirement savings. This time, his focus is on small businesses.

While larger corporations have embraced the idea, a large chunk of U.S. workers still don't have the opportunity to contribute to an employer plan. In fact, 36% of private-sector workers did not have access to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), as of March 2018, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics' data.

I've learned the greatest benefit of a 401(k) is that it turns spenders into savers by making saving the first priority.
Ted Benna
'father of the 401(k)'

Benna, who has authored five books including "401(k) for Dummies," spoke with CNBC about saving for retirement and how small businesses can help.

How did you come up with the idea of a 401(k)?

The myth is that I uncovered a hidden paragraph buried in the Internal Revenue Code, but that isn't correct. My contribution was adding employer matching contributions and pre-tax employee contributions even though the enabling legislation didn't provide for either. Successfully getting this to market was another huge challenge, because employees saving for retirement wasn't an accepted thing at that time.

What's the biggest takeaway from your years of working with 401(k)s?

I've learned the greatest benefit of a 401(k) is that it turns spenders into savers by making saving the first priority.

That, then, is why it's important that employees have the opportunity to save via payroll deduction through their employers.

Many Americans still don't have access, with many small businesses not offering retirement plans. Why is that?

Small employers believe the 401(k) is too complex and expensive — and it is. They aren't aware there are, in fact, better alternatives available to them. There is limited information. It is not easy for them to find out what is available.

designer491 | iStock | Getty Images

What are those alternatives?

There are 11 states that have already implemented or are implementing state payroll deduction IRA [individual retirement account] programs. Oregon pioneered this, adopting their plan two years ago, and other states are following its model.

All the state-run plans are limited to Roth IRAs, from the information I have seen. Those are great for employees who don't pay any federal income tax; however, pre-tax traditional IRAs are usually better for those who do pay income taxes. [Editor's note: California, which began its IRA enrollment plan this month, plans to offer a traditional pre-tax IRA option by the end of the year.]

However, there are different alternatives than state-run plans that may, in fact, be better. They are all IRA-based alternatives, including payroll deduction IRAs with potential employer-matching contributions, SEP [Simplified Employee Pension] IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs and some new ways of potentially using those programs, as well.

What should employees do?

If their employer isn't offering a plan, they can make them aware that there are alternative plans out there they should look into. They could potentially make the effort to gather information about those alternatives, depending upon how ambitious they want to get.

More from Invest in You:
One-third of Americans have cut their spending this year
Switching jobs? Don't make these retirement plan mistakes
What you'll need in retirement savings by age 30, 40, 50

What is the federal government doing about it?

Two things. First, there is the Secure Act, which already passed the House and is pending in the Senate. It provides a number of ways of encouraging small employers to offer plans.

The second is legislation has been proposed that would require all employers with at least 10 employees to offer a plan. [Editor's note: House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal's spokesperson said he plans to make that proposal a priority in the next retirement bill. However there isn't a timeline for it, yet.]

What are you doing now to help small employers?

I'm working on a consulting business to help small employers determine which type of plan is best and then to implement it. We have five models. They are all IRA-based and, therefore, they don't have the complexity of a 401(k).

They have significantly lower fees than Oregon's plan and also have a potential for significant tax savings.

Regardless of size, businesses have to do something. The state doesn't have to come in and run it. But it's tough finding financial organizations to get these set up.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.