Turning Workers into Savers? Incentives, Liquidity, and Choice in 401(k) Plan Design

Olivia S. Mitchell, Stephen P. Utkus, Tongxuan (Stella) Yang

NBER Working Paper No. 11726
Issued in October 2005
NBER Program(s):Aging, Labor Studies, Public Economics

We develop a comprehensive model of 401(k) pension design that reflects the complex tax, savings, liquidity and investment incentives of such plans. Using a new dataset on some 500 plans covering nearly 740,000 workers, we show that employer matching contributions have only a modest impact on eliciting additional retirement saving. In the typical 401(k) plan, only 10 percent of non-highly-compensated workers are induced to save more by match incentives; and 30 percent fail to join their plan at all, despite the fact that the company-proffered match would grant them a real return premium of 1-5% above market rates if they contributed. Such indifference to retirement saving incentives cannot be attributed to liquidity or investment constraints. These results underscore the need for alternative approaches beyond matching contributions, if retirement saving is to become broader-based.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w11726

Published: Mitchell, Olivia S., Steve Utkus, and Tongxuan (Stella) Yang. “Turning Workers into Savers? Incentives, Liquidity, and Choice in 401(k) Plan Design.” National Tax Journal 60 (September 2007): 469-89. citation courtesy of

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