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Making retirement saving even more valuable by adding automatic emergency savings

David C. John

Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared on AARP’s Thinking Policy blog

Automatic enrollment for retirement saving is both effective and popular among all income, gender and ethnic groups. It has increased participation, helped people to both start saving earlier and to make appropriate investment choices.This mechanism would be even more useful, especially for younger workers and those with low-to-moderate incomes if retirement savings plans also allowed employees to save for unexpected expenses. Recent research by the US Financial Diaries Project, which looks at the actual income flows of low-to-moderate income consumers shows why this feature would be valuable.

Their studies found that low-to-moderate income households are saving for near-term small emergencies. However, those situations happen so often that they prevent households from building up higher savings for larger emergencies. A split auto enrollment plan would help them to have money for those bigger problems.

One way to structure such a plan would be to automatically enroll an employee into a saving program where part of the contributions would go to a regular 401k-style retirement saving account and the rest into a passbook savings account at a federally insured bank or credit union. The emergency savings could be a percentage of the total contribution or based on income levels, such as a percentage of contributions on the first $20,000 of annual income. Auto escalation would apply only to the retirement contributions.

Some will correctly argue that the split reduces potential retirement savings, but it also potentially reduces leakage from those accounts. When an unexpected expense arises, workers will have other savings that they can use instead of dipping into their retirement accounts.

As with all automatic enrollment plans, the saver would have complete control, and could choose to save more or less, change where the savings go, or even to not participate at all. If the employee already has a passbook account, he or she could either direct all contributions to the retirement account or send the passbook money to the existing account instead of a new one.

Savers would receive whatever tax benefit their plan type offers for retirement contributions, but they would not receive any additional tax advantages for the passbook balances. They could withdraw money from the passbook account at any time without any penalty. And those balances would earn whatever interest rate the bank or credit union is paying on passbook accounts.

Because the passbook account feature is under the legal framework of a retirement plan, it would be appropriate that no more than half of the total contribution would go into general savings. In addition, a plan should be required to set its base contribution rate at 6 percent of income before it could offer such a feature. The passbook savings are intended to supplement retirement contributions, and not to replace them. And if the employer matches savings, that amount would go into the retirement account.

This type of split is possibly legal already, but there are technical issues that need to be considered. The 2006 Pension Protection Act eliminated any state legal barriers for automatic enrollment into a retirement account. It may be that federal regulators could interpret that provision as applying also to passbook amounts as the split savings is a feature of the retirement plan. If not, then legislative action would be needed. Certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act may also need to be revised.

And to encourage employers to offer such an account, regulatory burdens should be kept to a minimum. An employer would be considered to have met its responsibilities for picking an appropriate product under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act if it chooses a simple passbook account at any federally insured bank or credit union.
Adding an automatic enrollment passbook savings account could make 401k-type retirement accounts even more valuable to new and low-to-moderate income savers. Retirement would always remain the primary reason to save, but the split contribution would make a 401k more attractive and help to build a general savings habit.

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