Retirement Plan Services

Cashing Out on Tomorrow: When Personal and Market Economies Diverge

May 7, 2024

Woman doing accounting home finance expenses and calculate credit card monthly debt to bills payment.

You could say that the past year has been one for the record books. As of January 2024, total U.S. consumer debt reached a historic $17.33 trillion while credit card rates surged to unprecedented levels, topping more than 24%. An all-time-high number of American workers (3.6%) made hardship withdrawals from their 401(k)s in 2023, signaling escalating consumer distress within a persistent, near-record inflationary environment. Moreover, a 2023 study by revealed that nearly eight in 10 Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. So as the Dow and S&P celebrated all-time highs, boosting participants’ account balances, more Americans are — as The Wall Street Journal aptly put it — “treating their 401(k)s like cash machines.” In doing so, they undermine the potential gains they could have realized and further imperil their financial future.

For plan sponsors, current market and economic conditions present a pressing imperative to educate participants on alternative strategies to help effectively manage debt and budgeting challenges — without jeopardizing retirement readiness.

Debt management workshops as part of a holistic financial wellness program, for example, can provide employees with practical strategies for managing debt. From prioritizing repayment of high-interest debt to understanding APRs and the impact of making minimum payments, structured learning experiences can offer actionable insights that workers can use to reduce debt faster. These initiatives can be supported by targeted content campaigns via emails, videos, webinars, social media content, and company intranets to provide ongoing assistance and reminders about staying on track with debt management goals.

For more granular information, employers can provide access to interactive debt-payoff calculators that enable employees to input their own specific financial details and receive personalized debt repayment information — or better understand the impact of various debt reduction strategies. Visualizing one’s path to debt freedom in a concrete and individualized way can be an incredibly powerful motivator and help employees make more informed financial decisions.

Furthermore, some companies are beginning to offer employee-sponsored emergency savings accounts (ESAs) as an alternative method to pay for unanticipated expenses. This benefit can help employees avoid turning to high-interest credit cards during financial emergencies, while also potentially helping to sidestep retirement plan leakage.

Employers can provide invaluable assistance to those struggling to manage debt obligations, with an eye toward retaining — and building — their retirement nest egg. The unprecedented combination of economic pressures facing many employees today can easily lead to short-term thinking and reactive decision-making that can compromise long-term financial health. But by providing targeted resources and assistance, plan sponsors can play a crucial role in improving their employees’ financial resilience and retirement readiness — and help them live more happy and productive lives both within and outside of the workplace.