Contribution Behavior of 401(k) Plan Participants

October 2001
EBRI Issue Brief #238
Paperback, 20 pp.
PDF, 103 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2001

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Executive Summary

  • This Issue Brief examines the 1999 contribution behavior of 1.7 million 401(k) plan participants drawn from the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project. The findings in this paper build on previous academic research examining the contribution activity of 401(k) participants, by using a large sample of participants in a wide range of plan sizes and by examining in detail the factors that influence contribution activity.
  • Eighty-five percent of participants in the sample only made before-tax contributions to their plans, and 97 percent of all dollars contributed by employees were contributed on a before-tax basis. On average, participants contributed 6.8 percent of their salaries on a before-tax basis.
  • Before-tax contribution activity varied among participants. About 61 percent of participants contributed more than 5 percent of their salaries on a before-tax basis and about 21 percent set aside more than 10 percent of their salaries on a before-tax basis.
  • Eleven percent of participants analyzed in this study earning more than $40,000 a year contributed at the $10,000 before-tax IRC limit in 1999. Thirteen percent of participants with salaries between $70,000 and $80,000 contributed at the cap, and 18 percent of those with salaries between $80,000 and $90,000 were at the limit. However, it appears that among participants not contributing at the IRC limit, 52 percent could not have done so because of formal plan-imposed contribution limits below the IRC limit.
  • Older participants tended to contribute a higher percentage of their salaries to plans than did younger participants, even after factoring out differences in salary and job tenure. Participants tended to increase the share of their salary (and amounts) contributed to their 401(k) plan as their salaries rose until salaries reached $80,000. For individuals with salaries above $80,000, before-tax contribution rates (though not the amounts contributed) tended to fall as salaries rose because IRC, and possibly plan sponsor, contribution limits became binding for some participants.
  • Giving employees the option of borrowing from their 401(k) accounts increased participant contribution rates. On average, a participant in a plan offering loans appeared to contribute 0.6 percentage point more of his or her salary to the plan than a participant in a plan with no loan provision.
  • Total contributions—the sum of employee and employer contributions—were higher for participants who received an employer contribution as part of their 401(k) plans than for those who did not. The average total contribution rate was 10 percent of salary for employees in plans offering an employer contribution, compared with 7.4 percent for those in plans not offering an employer contribution.