Is Your 401(k) Now a 201(k)?

Richard Thaler reveals how to be frugal without thinking about it.
  • Transcript


Question: How can people be encouraged to save money?


Richard Thaler: Everyone’s lost a lot of money on their 401k plans. I’ve heard some people calling them 201k plans. So it’s even more important to get people to be saving more for retirement. Behavioral economics has helped us learn a lot about how to do that.

One simple way is what’s called automatic enrollment. Now this is just changing what are called the default options.

In a typical 401k plan, when you first become eligible you get a big pile of forms and you’re told, fill out these forms if you want to join. Tell us how much amount you’ve saved and how you want to invest the money. In, under automatic enrollment you get that same pile of forms but the top page says, if you don’t fill out these forms, we’re going to enroll you anyway and we’re going to enroll you at this saving rate and in these investments. If you don’t want to join, then sign here that says I don’t want to join. That increases the number of people who joined, and the speed at which they joined, by a huge amount.

There’s a second component of a good savings plan, which is something that a colleague of mine called Schlomo Benartzi and I developed many years ago, that we call “save more tomorrow.”

“Save more tomorrow” is a nudge to help people do what they know they want to do, which is save more, but they can’t bring themselves to save more now. Just like many of us are planning to go on diets next month, or maybe in two months, certainly not tonight.

So, here’s how “save more tomorrow” works. A company invites their employees to sign up for a plan where every time they get a raise, some part of that raise goes to increasing their contribution rate to the 401k plan. In the first company we convinced to adopt this plan, saving rates tripled.

No one was forced to do it, right? So, this was a nudge.


Question: How can the US government nudge companies to nudge employees to save money?


Richard Thaler: In 2006, Congress adopted the following law, it’s called the Pentium Protection Act. It’s actually a 900 page bill, but there’s two paragraphs that are nudges. What it says is, that if a company has those two features, automatic enrollment and a primitive kind of “save more tomorrow”, they have to enroll people at least a 3% saving rate and they have to automatically escalate that at least 1% a year, for at least three years, and if they do those two things, and they have a match, so the company contributes something to the plan as well, so they have those three things, then they get a free pass on some compliance form that companies find very onerous, that shows that not too much of the benefits are going to the highest paid workers. They get that free pass because if they’ve adopted those things, then it’s almost certainly the case that they’re in compliance.

I think this is a perfect illustration of nudging, of light handed regulation, it’s not telling companies you must have automatic enrollment, you must have “save more tomorrow,” you must have a match. It’s telling them if you want to do that, then here’s a little carrot, you won’t have to fill that form out. I think that’s a great model for how government can use nudges in regulation.


Recorded on: June 19, 2009.