NEW YORK - Jamie P. Menges sees many of his clients getting squeezed in this economy, and some are considering hard choices - such as cutting back on their 401(k) contributions.
One couple, trying to balance coming education costs with rising gasoline and food prices, recently discussed that idea, hoping they could take home a bit more in each paycheck. The Dublin, Ohio, investment adviser crunched some numbers and suggested it made more sense to reduce their Roth IRA contributions, which helped save the tax deductions associated with the 401(k).
Administrators of retirement plans say they are not seeing a large-scale move by employees to reduce their contributions to 401(k) plans. But investment advisers say more people may consider cutting back on retirement savings if the economic doldrums continue.
"I think it's a conflict that they're constantly in battle with," said Menges, an adviser with Investment Partners. "But right now, the broader question is, which one are they going to sacrifice in favor of the other?"
Eric Levy, a partner at Mercer LLC, which manages plans for about 1.5 million people, examined contribution statistics from July through March 31 and found no evidence of widespread cutbacks. But he said investors were nervous.
"I think it's a very important and legitimate concern, because people's paychecks are only so big," Levy said. "They're not getting significant [pay] increases, so I'm sure people look at what they can control."
Representatives from Fidelity Inc., the largest administrator of retirement plans in the United States, and the Vanguard Group Inc., of Malvern, Pa., also said they had seen no sign of contribution reductions.
Kevin Crain, a managing director at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., said: "If we look at the first quarter of this year, as opposed to the first quarter of last year, participant contribution is actually up slightly." But he credited the increase to automatic enrollment, in which employers do not wait for workers to sign up to participate, and sometimes even schedule automatic contribution increases.
Merrill Lynch manages 401(k) plans for more than 40,000 companies, and a total of about 6.9 million individuals nationwide.
Pam Hess, director of retirement research for Hewitt Associates Inc., which manages plans for about 400 companies and 2.9 million individuals, said some investors might start paring their contributions when they get their plan statements showing further losses due to the stock market's volatility.
"When people see that they're losing money, when they see those negative numbers in their statements, it's certainly tougher to stomach that," Hess said.
One sign that some people have started to view their 401(k) plans as a source of cash is what Hess referred to as a "marginal uptick" in withdrawals and loans from the plans.
David Wray, president of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, said hardship withdrawals had increased only incrementally when averaged out across the 55 million workers who participate in 401(k) plans nationwide - a number that has risen substantially in recent years as more companies have eliminated pension plans. Hardship-withdrawal increases have been focused in areas of the country hurt the most by the economic downturn and housing crisis, he said. Most people, once they are in a 401(k), rarely change their participation rate - or even their investments within the plan, Wray said.
Companies that manage retirement plans typically have calculators available online to help participants figure out what effect changing their contributions would have, both to their paychecks and to long-term savings. Because 401(k) contributions are made pretax, reducing the amount taken from each check often will not substantially change take-home pay, experts noted.