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When the economy began slowing down a few years ago, businesses, investors, and workers all shared in the pain. Yet while many businesses have seen their prospects bounce back significantly since the financial crisis, and shareholders have regained a big part of what they lost during the market meltdown, many workers are still waiting to recover the benefits they gave up during the recession.
Losing a key benefit
One of the biggest things that employees lost when the economy started faltering was the matching contribution their employers made to their 401(k) plans. Hundreds of companies slashed these contributions, which involve employers adding their own money on top of what workers voluntarily set aside in their retirement plan accounts. When workers retire, they get not only the money they set aside and any income from that money, but also the proceeds of employer matching contributions. Over the course of a career, matching contributions can easily add $100,000 or more to your retirement nest egg.
When companies were losing money and many were on the brink of possible collapse, it made sense that workers would need to make sacrifices. But the implicit agreement was that when times got better for companies, they'd make sure their workers reaped the benefits as well.
Last in line
Unfortunately, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, many workers aren't getting their benefits back even as their employers enjoy higher profits and a substantial recovery. Shipping companies FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) and United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS ) both cut their matching contributions during the recession, though FedEx recently announced it is reinstating the match come January 1. Like FedEx and UPS, Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) and Unisys (NYSE: UIS ) have seen their business results stabilize, but it could be a while before 401(k) matching is fully restored.
Now it's true that some companies have shared their improved results with their employees by fully restoring 401(k) matching. Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) , Ford (NYSE: F ) , and Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK ) have all returned to making full matching contributions.
But as long as the job market remains sluggish, companies can probably get away with being slow to restore benefits. But especially among employers that previously had generous matches, eliminating matching contributions can create discontent among workers and lead to losing key employees.
What to do
As an employee, you may not have much say in whether your employer matches your 401(k) contributions. But there are some steps you can take:
- Keep saving. It doesn't make sense to stop saving for retirement just because your employer stops matching your contributions. Make sure you keep setting aside money as you were when matching contributions were made.
- Look elsewhere. Just because you're saving for retirement, doesn't mean your 401(k) is the best place to put that money. Without a match, other, less costly options like Roth and traditional IRAs may make more sense for your money. The increased flexibility IRAs offer can give you access to better investments than the limited menu your employer may offer.
- Make your opinion known. If there's a safe way to do so, let your employer know how you feel about losing the match. Some employers believe that they can cut retirement-related benefits safely because it doesn't have as immediate an impact on your finances as health insurance or other benefits. A gentle reminder that you expect your employer's help not just with current expenses but future ones as well can give your employer a new perspective.
It's unfortunate that even after seeing their stock rise and their financial condition improve dramatically, some employers aren't doing more to support their workers in their efforts to save for retirement. By taking the right steps, though, you can ensure that their shortsightedness won't end up costing you.
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