How Much Should I Have In My 401(k)?



In the news, I read how Social Security will dissolve in the future as it will inevitably run out of money.  The experts advise not to depend on Social Security as we get older.  


As many of you know, I continually preach about the importance of saving for the future.  That is why I was curious to see how people were saving money in their 401(k) accounts, since they may not be able to depend on Social Security.


How America Saves

Vanguard recently published the How America Saves 2017” report, which found that contribution rates into defined contribution plans vary greatly, depending on age and income of the participant.


In the study, Vanguard found that its participants in 2016 had an average account balance of $96,495, which is a slight increase compared to $96,288 in 2015.  However, the median balance dropped from $26,405 to $24,713 between 2015 and 2016. 


401(k) savings


Average vs. Median

The average balance and median balance can greatly differ.  The median account balance simply represents the midpoint of the data for participants.  This means that in 2016, 50% of participants had greater than $24,713, while 50% had less.  On the other hand, the average account balance is the midpoint of the average account size.  


The median centers around the people, whereas the dollar size dictates the average.  


In 2016, the average worker set aside 6.2% of their earnings into their accounts.  In 2015, the average deferral rate was 6.9%.  On top of that, in 2016, the median deferral rate was 5%, compared to 6% in 2015.


Deferral Rates

401(k) savings


With news that the economy is improving, I was unsure as to why the average deferral rate had dropped.  After digging deeper, there was a silver lining.  Because there has been an increase in automatic enrollment plans, there has also been an increase in participation rates.  That, in combination with lower default deferral rates, often times 3% or less, pushed down the average deferral rate.


Even though the percentages dropped, the number of participants actually increased.  The number of participants enrolled in automatic plans increased from 79% to 81% between 2015 to 2016.  Even more astounding, 90% of automatic enrollees continued to participate, instead of opting out, which is impressive to me.


Voluntary vs. Automatic Enrollment

401(k) savings


Looking at the above figures, I was astounded at the large difference between voluntary and automatic enrollments.  There is almost a 60% difference for those under 25.  Clearly, the younger crowd doesn’t make it a priority to invest in the future unless they must opt out.  


Voluntary enrollment steadily increases as people get older.  However, based on these studies, it appears that all companies should automatically enroll their participants, since the figures show at least 85% stayed enrolled.


In addition to the increase in automatic enrollment plans, something else is at play.  As the economy revs up, people leave their companies for new opportunities.  That means, often times, that people have multiple 401(k) accounts.  This is because most people do not roll over their old accounts into their new ones.  Thus, the smaller balances in the new 401(k) accounts could suggest that people may have more money in other savings accounts.


Saving for the Future

401(k) savings


It does appear that some of these balances are low, especially in the 25-34 age group, $22,256.  But, if you consider these planned participants invested in the S&P 500, which has a historical average of 8%, this means that they should have more than $221,000 in 30 years.  That doesn’t even include the 6.2% average that they contribute from their paycheck.  


401(k) savings


The average US income is $56,516.  If you use the deferral rate of 6.2%, $3,503 would be invested every year.  If an individual never got another raise, they would end up with over $618,000 in 30 years.  Based on the Trinity Study, this should allow them to spend $24,700 per year.


So readers, what did you think about the study?  Are you saving more than the average/median person?  Do you disagree with anything that you read?  Share your thoughts below.

Mustard Seed Money

Welcome to the website. A mustard seed is a very small seed but astonishingly grows very large over time. My hope is that through your financial journey that your small investment in time, money and faith will grow beyond anything that you could ever imagine.


  1. The study is more-less right on the money. In my category (25-34) I fall in-between the average/median person. I wish I could say otherwise.

    Our plans for the future is as our income increases is to contribute more.
    Belle recently posted…How To Live On One IncomeMy Profile

  2. I’ve never really seen these studies before. What surprised me was that the median and mean were so different. It’s good that the mean is higher than the median, but, it’d be nice if both figures were higher.

    Being self-employed, I miss my employer match when it comes to retirement planning. I haven’t been contributing extra to cover the difference.
    Josh recently posted…I Quit My Job Two Years Ago and We’re Not Starving or Homeless!My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Josh!!! It’s definitely difficult not getting the match from your employer. On the bright side, you are your own boss which I’d trade for in a second!!!

  3. Thanks for the great analysis. Your provide a lot of helpful information that I didn’t even know existed.

    I heard that the govt is going to get rid of SS in the future. This might have caused a lot of anxiety and motivated people to invest more in their retirement. Or maybe people just don’t care enough and just move on with their lives. I think I’m in between.
    Ms. Frugal Asian Finance recently posted…The Struggle For (Financial) Power In A MarriageMy Profile

    • I’m really hoping that folks get the message that social security may not be around in the future unless Congress decides to allocate some more funding towards it. In the current political environment I don’t see it passing but we shall see what happens in the future 🙂

    • I believe that the study used one person for each account. So I believe they thought that amounts could potentially be higher based on people switching jobs and not rolling over their accounts. But I’ll dig a little further into it.

  4. I really pause with your last statement. Even without changing companies with two working spouses you have two 401k. Add in savings, potentially IRA, and other options and I’m not sure what such a limited analysis tells us.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…I Can Not Afford ItMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Fulltime Finance!!! I tried to tease things out a bit with the study. It may be a jump in certain areas but I thought none the less fun to read 🙂

  5. I agree, due to being at this job <2 years my 401k isn't at the median for my salary range. However all previous 401ks get rolled to my Vanguard IRA after a job change. If I add those numbers in, I'm, doing fine.
    I made up a spreadsheet for a coworker to help convince her to sign up for the company 401k. We get a 4% match on 6% contribution, or 10%. Personally over the past few years I've been increasing my contribution towards the max. I think an opt put would have been more efficient for her.

  6. You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the news. While nobody knows what will happen with Social Security it is hard to believe that the government will not pay out at least a portion of what you paid in. Also the average balances are pretty low and not surprisingly since most people don’t take their future retirement seriously.
    Jeff @ Maximum Cents recently posted…Ebates: Cash Back Online Shopping + $10 Sign Up Bonus + Up to $25,000 in ReferralsMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Jeff!!! While I’m not as pessimistic as others when it comes to Social Security. I am worried that taxes will have to rise to cover it or benefits will have to be reduced. Either way, most of us will be affected and I definitely agree the balances were a little lower than I was expecting.

  7. For me, I don’t compare my financial with others because I go at my own pace and I don’t want to apply judgement. I set my own financial goals and try to achieve those goals on an annual basis.

    From time to time, I would use research numbers as a guide to see if I am being too aggressive or too loose with my goals. I will adjust my numbers according to my situation. This will ensure that I am living according to my own expectation, not someone else’s.
    Leo T. Ly @ recently posted…Living With AutismMy Profile

  8. No matter how many studies I read I always am second guessing myself on how much I should have in retirement. I think I’m just so concerned about getting to FI that I can’t seem to calm myself down.
    Perhaps its just one of those bad habits people get when they say oh just a little more and I’ll be fine but for me its, “when we get to a networth of 250k i’ll feel better” but then when we get to that i’ll think, “when we get to 300k i’ll feel better”
    Budget On a Stick recently posted…Budget BreakdownMy Profile

    • Hahaha…the need for more. I think it’s super important to create a goal and then really make sure that’s the right goal for you. But like you I at times find myself doubting if I’ll really have enough 🙂

  9. I’ve seen this data before and it’s sad that so many people aren’t more interested in their financial future. Also, the government should take greater steps in educating the public especially since pensions are a rare thing and we oursevles are responsible for funding our retirement.
    SMM recently posted…Best 401k CalculatorMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing SMM!!! I definitely wish the government would step in and educate the public more. I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. But something needs to be done 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing Mr. Defined Sight!!! It’s hard not to compare at times but it’s definitely eye opening to see where others are. Whether that’s good or bad 🙂

  10. I wonder what the figures are for combined retirement accounts, rather than just defined contribution accounts. There are still a lot of people in jobs that don’t offer any retirement plan. For me, I have $0 in a 401K, but I have well above the average for my age in IRAs (one Roth, one traditional. I’ve rolled over former 401(k)s and make my contributions based on our tax situation.)
    Emily Jividen recently posted…New Grocery Store in Town: How Does Lidl Stack Up?My Profile

  11. Lots of numbers and lots of different ways to look at them. I think the most important thing is people have to want to save for the future and make it a priority. I have friends who can’t save anything because they don’t have any money, but they smoke, drive nice cars, or go to the movies on a weekly bases. Stopping any one of these things for them might be a sacrifice, but would also “allow” them to start savings. The mental game is a huge part of it.
    Thanks for the reminder!
    FIbythecommonguy recently posted…DIY Fence BuildMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing!!! I definitely agree that most people could/should save more for retirement. It’s all about what’s truly important to you at the end of the day 🙂

  12. As you said, Social Security will not be enough to live on. With the decline of defined benefits, defined contributions are what people have to fund their future. I have never been able to wrap my mind around the idea of contributing so little or not at all. People view these accounts like they are an option. Well, I guess they are an option if you plan on working until you drop or are willing to accept a low quality of life in retirement.
    Dave recently posted…London on a Budget: Part 2My Profile

    • Like you I’m not interested in dying at my office desk. There are a ton of things I’d love to explore outside of a cubicle. But I guess there are tradeoffs for every decision that we make 🙂

  13. We all want to be above average… but I’m on pace with the average 🙂 haha.

    I’m at the beginning of the age bracket 25-34 and am slowly but surely getting more in my 401k. I definitely think changing jobs has something to do with the low average balances.
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…Does Money Really Matter?My Profile

  14. Here is a exercise I’ve thought about doing and would be curious about.
    1) Get the historical pre-tax 401k annual contribution limits ($18,000 in 2017)
    2) Assume the limit gets invested into the S&P 500 index on Jan 1 each year
    3) Calculate the value of the 401k going back 5, 10, 15 years, etc.

    This would represent the “maximum” value of the 401k for the corresponding periods. Compare the period that lines up with your 401k participation against your actual balance.. Theoretically your balance could be above the max. You can assume a company match in the calculation to make the comparisonmore valid but each company’s match will be different.

    I disagree with the first sentence in your post: “Social Security will dissolve in the future as it will inevitably run out of money.” My belief is that there is less than a 1% chance of this happening. As I stated in some other comments, Congress will raise social security taxes, lift the wage cap, extend the qualifying age, etc. They may even cut the benefits but I have no doubt you will be receiving some Social Security benefit when you reach retirement age.
    A reasonable person would take action sooner rather than later to fix social security. You could immediately phase in modest wage cap increases or increase the retirement age for people in their 20s and 30s which would ease the problem. Being Congress, no one wants to do something unpopular like that for fear of being voted out of office. I think the SSA should have directors or governors like the Fed – 10 year appointed terms with a mandate to keep social security solvent and with the power to raise payroll taxes, the wage cap, the retirement age, etc.

    One more thing about the Social Security Trust. It never runs out of money. Even if no action is taken by Congress, the current surplus will be drawn down to zero in the 2030s. At that point, the incoming taxes will pay for X% of outgoing benefits where X is less than 100% and greater than 0%. As I recall, projections for X is approximately 80% initially.

    • Great points Dan and I apologize for being flippant in the original sentence structure. I should have better defined where Social Security was going and outline the points you made above. Thanks for the clarification.

    • Thanks for sharing Lanny!!! Oh man if the default rate was 10%, I think we’d see a much better health of retirement plans in this country. But then I’m sure economist would say people don’t have enough money to spend in the economy so their retirement accounts are going down due to the recession 🙂

  15. Well, I totally agree with the studies. Having taught college students for 20 years I can tell you how much saving for retirement is so not on their radar screen, even when they have been in the job for a few years. I try to convince them, but it still is difficult for them to listen to me. On the flip side, seeing this study does make me feel good that we are doing much better than the average Americans. Among the FI blogosphere we are certainly behind, but we are ahead of everyone else.
    Jason recently posted…What Are Your Financial Dream(s)?My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Jason!!! It’s definitely difficult to convince kiddos in college that they need to save for the future. They’re too busy thinking about all the great things they can buy, plus their invincible and will live forever 🙂

  16. While it personally feels good to have 20x+ the average for my age, I worry about most people. It seems we, as a society, aren’t taking the situation seriously enough. The earlier you get started with your retirement savings, the easier it is to achieve the goal. Waiting until later in life really makes it hard for people to “catch up” to where they should be.
    Brad – recently posted…Here Are 9 Easy Ways To Save Money This YearMy Profile

    • Wow Brad you are doing really awesome then!!! Definitely ahead of the game and a lot can definitely be learned from you clearly. Getting started seems like it’s always the hard part but once you get going it makes things much easier 🙂

  17. The opt-out versus opt-in stats are always amazing to me. The things we’ll avoid doing if it takes an extra step or chance to second guess… Most countries in Europe have a 90%+ organ donation rate because they have an opt-out system for donors. In the US, it is only 45% as we opt in.

    On Social Security, I don’t include the income in my retirement numbers but I expect it will still be there in some form when we retire. It isn’t running out of money, current projections just have it not reaching full funding ability in ~20-30 years, meaning they will have to cut benefits by 20% or raise SS taxes.
    Chelsea @ Mama Fish Saves recently posted…What It’s Like to Be a LuLaRoe Retailer – Side Hustle ShowcaseMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Chelsea!!! I definitely agree more things in life should be opt in situations. That’s a disconcerting stat on the organ donor rate. Which is really too bad because I don’t think most people are aware.

  18. It’s terrible that Americans do not make it a priority to save on their 401K. Lots of them think they should worry about contributing when they are close to retirement. The numbers that you have on here really reflect that especially for people in their 20s. You should start saving as early as possible.

    • I’d love to see what would happen if 20 something were mandated to save that money and then could go crazy later in life. I’d think they’d have a ton more money to have fun with for sure 🙂

  19. I know I was a little slow to enroll in the 401k at my first post college job. I was unsure how long I would stay (2 years 10 months) and how to do it. Also, I was on probation/temporary employment for the first three months, so after the probation period ended things had calmed down and I enrolled. I definitely wish I had just been enrolled from the beginning.

    My second job featured automatic enrollment and I think that is a much better approach! Make people opt-out! When you think that people used to be automatically enrolled in pension programs and in the US we are all contributing to social security, we should definitely all be paying ourselves first too!

    • I’m a huge fan of auto enrollment. I would love to see the US mandate it moving forward. It’s such an easy feature and most people wouldn’t even notice if it was done starting with their first paycheck.

  20. Pretty scary numbers when it comes to how much people have saved in their 401Ks, especially when I looked at my age bracket (35-44). If I was 40 and I saw that I only had $62k stashed away for retirement, I would literally poop in my pants. On the other hand, that would probably provide the impetus for me to start working on my finances.
    SomeRandomGuyOnline recently posted…2017 Second Quarter and Blog UpdateMy Profile

    • I would definitely feel a little under prepared if I had $62k and retirement was a few short years away. Hopefully it is a sign that people have job hopped and not a larger trend 🙂

  21. I definitely contribute way above the average/median. $18,000 to pre-tax 401k, with ~$7000-8000 employer match. Then I hit it with as much after tax 401k contributions as I am allowed. 50% by my employer, putting me at an annual sum around $40,000 in the 401k. I use the after tax 401k because I hope to leave my job soon and then can roll it over more-or-less tax tree to a Roth IRA. Huge Roth contributions!!!

    • Thanks for stopping by!!! I definitely agree that folks trying to reach FIRE should be waaaaay past this. I never understood why folks like putting their head in the sand when it comes to money.

  22. I always max all my pre-tax accounts, at the expense of basically any “want” I might have. Why anyone would stop saving – regardless of big economic indicators – is beyond me. Get while the gettin’s good, people! Meaning: Save while you have a job! (Maybe this comes from having parents without extensive educations who, despite hard work, would have trouble with maintaining employment every time the economy declined…hmm)
    The Vigilante recently posted…Practical Empathy (with Zombies!)My Profile

  23. The average saved actually surprised me in that it was higher than I thought. But, I know that giant account balances can skew the average significantly. I’m encouraged that so many opt-out enrollees continue to save for retirement. I think all companies should consider making enrollment automatic unless you opt-out. Very cool.
    Laurie@ThreeYear recently posted…Is Focus is More Important than Intelligence?My Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Laurie!!! I was shocked by the opt-out numbers. It really goes to show that if you force people to do something and put even a small barrier in their way that they are less likely to try to do something about it.

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