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AUTOMATIC IRAs VALUABLE NEW SAVINGS TOOLS

Increasingly, it’s up to us to provide for our retirement, but most Americans need help to force themselves to save. That, as we see it, is the message of two reports reaching us this month.

Our added message: If nobody is forcing you to save, try our way of forcing yourself.

The first report, from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), shows that about two-thirds of employers offering traditional defined-benefit pension plans have either closed the plans to new hires or frozen them to all participants in the past two years, or plan to do so in the next two years.

These plans typically provide retirees with either a monthly pension for life or a lump sum at retirement, based on their salary and years of service.

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Among workers in the private sector who have a retirement benefit at work, about 37 percent have a defined-benefit pension plan, EBRI estimates. The other 63 percent have a defined-contribution 401(k)-type plan.

Aside from any employer matching contributions, how much you get at retirement under such plan depends solely on how much you contribute and how well the investments you select perform.

But employers, who cite increased costs for the reductions in defined-benefit plans, are doing something for the employees. The EBRI study, conducted with Mercer Human Resource Consulting, found that most employers cutting defined-benefit plans are increasing matching contributions to 401(k) plans and automatically enrolling employees unless they opt out.

Automatic enrollment, with employees’ contributions often directed to diversified mutual funds, has been shown to greatly increase employee participation.

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“These findings are significant because they indicate that reductions to workers’ traditional pensions are being at least partially offset by added benefits on the 401(k) side,” said Jack VanDerhei, a Temple University professor and author of the EBRI study.

The second report comes from AARP, the membership and advocacy group for people 50 and over that is lobbying for automatic enrollment in work-based individual retirement accounts.

The report, conducted for AARP by Optimal Benefit Strategies LLC, concluded that about 48 million Americans could benefit from such a program. The number is almost two-thirds of the estimated 75 million American workers without current access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

“Most Americans battle with the desire to spend but the necessity to save,” said Tom Nelson, chief operating officer at AARP. “Automatic enrollment in an IRA would encourage saving and simplify the decision-making process of planning and saving for retirement.”

Legislation establishing such automatic workplace IRAs has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon). Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Representatives Richard Neal (D-Massachusetts) and Phil English (R-Pennsylvania).

IRAs and 401(k)s are two distinct types of retirement accounts and it is quite legal to contribute to both. The proposed legislation for automatic IRAs, however, is intended to help those without access to 401(k) plans.

Under the proposed law, employers that have more than 10 employees, have been in business for at least two years and don’t currently offer a retirement plan would facilitate direct-deposit payroll deductions to an IRA at a financial institution. The employer would not contribute to such an account but would merely act as a conduit. The employer would also receive a temporary tax credit to offset administrative costs and the employee would benefit from a simple savings mechanism.

As a matter of course, we don’t take positions for or against proposed legislation. We do applaud all efforts to encourage retirement savings. For those without an automatic way to do it at work, we strongly suggest our “self-directed” way - open an IRA at a financial institution and arrange with it to have your contributions automatically deducted from your checking account. If it is up to us to save for retirement, we can do this.

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(Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column and communicate about their retirement plans. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.