This article claims:

In fact, the average 401(k) balance at Fidelity — which holds 16.2 million 401(k) accounts and is consistently ranked as the largest defined contribution record-keeper — was $106,500 as of September 2018.

If that still seems high, consider that averages tend to be skewed by outliers, and in this case, that number is being propped up by those rare millionaires. The median, which represents the middle balance between the highs and lows, is just $24,800.

I think this article is based on two articles from Fidelity [1,2].

In addition to the mean 401k balance ($106k), I am searching for the standard deviation. (Ideally, both as a function of age.)

Are there any sources of data available to the general public? I would really like to see a histogram of the data.

Does the Department of Labor release any summary statistics on 401k's?

  • 2
    It's hilarious that the quote contends that the records are skewed by the outliers insinuating large account balances are the outliers then states the median as though there aren't tons of near zero accounts. Age is the best predictor of wealth, looking at all account balances won't be very insightful as an outlier would be a 30 year old with a million dollars in their 401K, not a 60 year old with a million dollars.
    – quid
    Feb 1 '19 at 23:49
  • "The median, which represents the middle balance between the highs and lows." I understand this is a quote. The writing is awful. Median means the middle data point, that half the accounts are a higher balance and half, lower than this number. The wording in the quote implies something else. If the high is $5M, and the low is $1000, it implies a median $2.5M, which is nonsense. Feb 2 '19 at 3:37
  • Vanguard How America Saves covers through 2017, but may have the detail you are looking for. Feb 2 '19 at 3:50
  • This site has numbers based on age: financialsamurai.com/…
    – gaefan
    Feb 2 '19 at 15:22

Does the Department of Labor release any summary statistics on 401k's?

The problem with getting the statistics on 401K funds is that the employer only knows how much was contributed. This includes pre-tax, post-tax or Roth from the employee, and company match or other contributions from the employer. Once the funds are out of the hands of the employer they have no idea if the investments are aggressive, conservative, or something in-between.

The problem with all these statistics from the fund managers is that they are like looking through a window made to resemble a kaleidoscope.

  • I have worked for 5 companies over my career, the longest for 16 years the shortest for 18 months. For that shortest employer I was in my 40's and hired late in the year. So when they reported their statistics that year it sure looked like I was an employee that had saved almost nothing and was unprepared for retirement.

  • Once the employee leaves active employment with an employer they have a contract with the 401K managers view of the funds becomes even more skewed. There are no more deposits which for small accounts the deposits are the greatest source of increasing balances. Some leaving employees will roll the money into another 401K or into an IRA, so the data is lost to the old manager.

These disconnects always make me wonder if anything can even be learned by the summarized data. Too much depends on the differences between employees stages and the job hopping characteristics. The only way to get good data would be if it was collected at the federal level, but that would require collecting data that even the IRS doesn't care about.

  • I'm only looking for a histogram of retirement account balances (401k, IRA, etc) by age, but I agree that the statistics you mention would be skewed. Feb 2 '19 at 17:14
  • 1
    @Seth why do you think the existence such a histogram is even plausible? There is no centralized database of 401k balances, or even contributions; the closest to reporting is a "contributed" checkbox on W2s. There are tens of thousands of companies that let their employees contribute to 401ks, and dozens if not hundreds of providers. Not to mention balances are confidential and highly sensitive.
    – Kevin
    Feb 2 '19 at 20:23
  • @Kevin I assume that the government monitors everything. Keeping up with the balances in retirement accounts doesn't seem implausible to me. Feb 4 '19 at 4:12

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