Retirement account balances hit record levels amid uncertainty

As cities make plans to open up and people get vaccinated, retirement account balances are also showing signs of hope. 

The pandemic has not ended yet, but retirement savings are still ticking upward, according to the latest Fidelity Investments analysis of its retirement assets for the first quarter. Average balances for more than 30 million 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts have reached record levels.

The average IRA balance soared 31% to $130,000 in the first quarter of 2021 from a year earlier; and 401(k) plans jumped 36% to $123,900 in the same time frame; and 403(b) plans were up 42% to $107,300. These sizable year-over-year gains reflect the first-quarter 2020 market decline in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a quarter-over-quarter basis, IRA, 401(k), and 403(b) balances rose 1%, 2%, and 1%, respectively.

Retirement savers are also taking advantage of the fact they can contribute to an IRA in 2021 on behalf of the previous year. Investors contributed to 1.3 million IRA accounts in the first quarter, a 52% increase from the first quarter of 2020. More than a quarter of all IRA contributions (26%) were made by investors under age 35, up from 23% at the same time last year.  

While the problems of 2020 that derailed many Americans’ plans — in terms of health, retirement, careers, vacations and family — haven’t completely subsided, the number of people who took 401(k) loans or withdrawals did drop in the first three months of 2021. Only 1.6% of 401(k) plan participants initiated a loan in this time frame, down 2.4% from the year before. The number of workers with outstanding loans also decreased, from 19.7% in the first quarter of 2020 to 17.5% in 2021.

Employers are continuing to match contributions to their employer-sponsored retirement plans, Fidelity said. The average employer contribution was 4.6%, and the average amount contributed to each employee’s account was $1,720. For 403(b) plans, those figures were 4.1% and $3,000, respectively. More companies are also deploying auto-enrollment, and employees who were auto-enrolled saw higher savings rates as a result.