Is Auto-Enroll Right for Your 401(k) Plan?

Learn the ins and outs of this popular plan feature that streamlines the participant experience.

illustration of auto-enrolled 401k plan participant profiles

“Maybe when I make more.”

“Maybe when I pay off my student loans.”

“Maybe when my horoscope tells me it’s time.”

When it comes to employees enrolling in their 401(k)s, there’s always a reason why now isn’t the right time.

But the fact is the best time to save for retirement is right now, while time and the power of compounding growth are on their side. That’s where 401(k) automatic enrollmentor ‘auto-enroll’ for shortcomes in. It gives your employees the gentle nudge they might need to start saving for retirement.

Before we dive into auto-enroll and whether it makes sense for your company, let’s take a moment to celebrate your journey toward finding the 401(k) plan that’s right for you! If you’re reading this article, you’ve reached one of the final key considerations of plan design.

Another key consideration? That’s whether getting a pass on most compliance testing is worth the employer contribution requirements of a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan. If you go the Safe Harbor route, then your specific flavor of auto-enroll may be called a Qualified Automatic Contribution Arrangement (QACA). We’ll cover QACAs and the two other types of auto-enroll below.

How 401(k) auto-enroll works

As the name implies, automatic enrollment lets employers automatically deduct elective deferrals from employees’ wages. Simply put, it means your employees don’t have to lift a finger to start saving for retirement.

Compare that to the typical enrollment process where employees must go online, make a phone call, or submit paperwork to access their retirement plan. All those little steps take real effort, and employees who are on the fence about enrolling might not be bothered to do it. Before they know it, years have passed, and they’ve missed out on valuable time in the market that they will never get back.

Or you can do them a solid and make it all automatic.

If you decide to add an automatic enrollment feature to your 401(k) plan, you must notify your employees at least 30 days in advance. After you do, they have three options:

  1. Opt out. Employees can opt out of 401(k) plan participation in advance. At Betterment at Work, by the way, we make it simple for employees to do this online.
  2. Customize their contribution amount or investments. Instead of enrolling with the default automatic enrollment elections, employees can stay enrolled but choose their own contribution rate.
  3. Do nothing for now and enjoy the ride. Here we see the beauty of automatic enrollment. Employees don’t have to do anything to start investing. Once the opt-out timeframe has elapsed, they’ll automatically begin deferring a certain percentage of their pay to their 401(k). Employees are typically informed each year that they can opt out from this enrollment.

As you can imagine, option C is a popular choice. Among our clients who use auto-enroll, the employee participation rate is nearly 90 percent.

The three types of automatic enrollment

Before we go into each, a warning: we’re about to throw even more acronyms at you. If you’re allergic to alphabet soup, prepare accordingly!

All three types of auto-enroll require that employees be enrolled at preset contribution rates and have the options to opt out or change their contribution rates. That’s effectively where a Basic Automatic Contribution Arrangement (ACA) begins and ends. Two other varieties add a few more wrinkles on top of that.

With an Eligible Automatic Contribution Arrangement (EACA), employees can also request a refund of deferrals within the first 90 days.

Employers come to a Qualified Automatic Contribution Arrangement (QACA) by way of a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan. That means they’ve already committed to, among other things, a specific threshold of employer contributions. Safe Harbor plans that include auto-enroll must also steadily increase their employees’ contribution rates each year in what’s often referred to as automatic escalation. We offer auto-escalation at no added expense for all new plans.

Here’s how all this shakes out in grid form:

Automatic Contribution Arrangement
Automatic Contribution Arrangement (EACA)
Automatic Contribution Arrangement (QACA)
Employees enrolled at preset contribution rates
Employees can opt-out or change contribution rates
Employees can request a refund of deferrals within first 90 days    
Requires employer contributions (i.e. Safe Harbor)    
Requires annual increase in employee contribution rate up to at least 6% (i.e. auto-escalation)    

Auto-enrolled, but at how much?

With auto-enroll plans, you pick your employees’ default contribution rate. This begs the question: how high should you set it? A default contribution rate of 3 percent used to be the most common, but that changed recently. According to The Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 64th Annual Survey, a 6 percent rate became the most popular in 2020. And if it helps any in your decision-making, our own data shows no evidence of higher default contribution rates leading to higher numbers of opt-outs.

In addition to the default contribution rate, you’re also responsible for selecting the default investments for employees’ deferrals. This is what’s referred to as a Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA)and it can help limit your investment liability. Betterment at Work covers this base for all our 401(k) clients by defaulting employee deferrals into our Core portfolio, which meets QDIA criteria for transferability and safety.

One potential downside of auto-enroll

Making it easier for people to invest and save for retirement is a good thing. It’s sorta our thing. And if you have a Traditional 401(k) plan, an increased participation rate makes it more likely that your plan will pass the required compliance tests.

However, there’s one downside to consider, and it’s mostly a matter of perspective. If you set your default contribution rate relatively lowlet’s say less than 6 percentand don’t actively encourage employees to bump that up as much as they can, they may not get on track to retire by their desired age. Is it better than saving nothing for retirement? Absolutely. But because employees didn’t actively choose the rate, they may not be inclined to increase it on their own.

Wondering how to combat this retirement saving inertia? Well, it can be partially addressed by the aforementioned auto-escalation, which steadily increases employees’ contribution rates each year. We also help by offering your employees personalized retirement advice that helps keep them on track.

How Betterment at Work makes ‘auto’ even easier

As a digital 401(k) plan provider, we can help your employees save for their futures with compelling plan design features like auto-enroll. Our intuitive tech and committed service also lightens your administration load in the process.

And let’s not forget about auto-escalation, which we offer at no added cost to new plans. Let us handle the work of monitoring who gets escalated. If your payroll provider is one we offer 360-degree integrations with, we'll even implement the increase ourselves.

Last but certainly not least, we guide your employees through their contribution rates, investment options, and more. Even if your employees were auto-enrolled in the plan, they’ll get the encouragement they need to keep moving closer to retirement.

Your employees deserve a better 401(k) plan.

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The information provided is education only and is not investment or tax advice.