Sidecar Accounts Can Plug Some 401(k) Leakage—But Not Most Leakage

By Spencer Williams
Published on January 22, 2019

Employee Benefit News“Not having enough emergency savings for unexpected expenses” is the No. 1 financial concern for Millennials and members of Generation X, and the No. 2 financial concern among Baby Boomers, after retirement security. These findings from a PwC Employee Financial Wellness Survey released last year shouldn’t surprise members of the retirement services industry, since too many defined contribution plan participants dip into their 401(k) savings—through loans, hardship withdrawals, or cash-outs upon changing jobs—to fund emergency expenses.


While 48% of households faced at least one expense related to an unexpected emergency over the past year, according to CIT Bank, a recent GoBankingRates survey has found that a staggering 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in a savings account. The frequency of unexpected emergency expenses, and the lack of savings to fund them, work in tandem to create a situation where many Americans are forced to withdraw hard-earned retirement savings from 401(k) accounts in defined contribution plans, where they are safely incubated in the U.S. retirement system for future enjoyment. In fact, according to a Boston Research Technologies survey of 5,000 401(k) plan participants, slightly more than one-third of all 401(k) cash-outs upon job change are for emergencies, while the rest end up being used for discretionary spending.

The development of “sidecar” accounts, also known as “rainy day” funds, is a positive trend because these instruments can help plan participants avoid tapping into their retirement savings to pay emergency expenses. Sidecar accounts are set up alongside 401(k) savings accounts in defined contribution plans, and if an employee chooses to set one up, they can allocate after-tax contributions to the fund in order to reach a targeted amount of savings. When a sidecar fund reaches the desired amount, future contributions can be directed to the plan participant’s pre-tax retirement savings. If a participant dips into a sidecar fund, the targeted balance can be automatically replenished over time with future after-tax contributions.

Sidecar accounts can serve as a valuable tool for preserving retirement savings, and fortunately, our elected officials are attempting to make it easier for plan sponsors to offer them for participants. The Strengthening Financial Security Through Short-Term Savings Accounts Act of 2018, a bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.), would allow sponsors to automatically enroll participants in sidecar or standalone accounts for emergency expenses. The bill would also enable the U.S. Department of the Treasury to create a pilot program giving employers incentives to set up these accounts. The bill hasn’t yet become law, but the fact that it’s been proposed is positive for the U.S. retirement system as a whole.

Vast Majority of Leakage is from Cash-Outs

Although a sidecar account could be a useful tool in the ongoing struggle to curtail leakage of savings from defined contribution plans, they won’t plug the biggest hole in the retirement system’s proverbial bucket. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 89% of leakage is the result of premature cash-outs of 401(k) accounts. Loans, hardship withdrawals, and other factors contribute to the remaining 11%. As mentioned above, with an estimated one-third of cash-outs taken to cover emergencies, two-thirds of cash-outs are for non-emergency expenses.

Unfortunately, the lack of widespread, seamless plan-to-plan portability causes too many participants to cash out, or simply leave their savings behind in a former employer’s plan, because doing so is easier than consolidating their 401(k) accounts in their current-employer plans.

Thankfully, there is a solution to address the 89% of leakage caused by cash-outs—auto portability, which has been live for more than a year. Auto portability is the routine, standardized, and automated movement of a retirement plan participant’s 401(k) savings from their former employer’s plan to an active account in their current employer’s plan, and is specifically designed for accounts with less than $5,000. Key components of the auto portability solution are the paired “locate” and “match” technologies for tracking down and identifying participants who have stranded 401(k) accounts in former-employer plans, which in turn enable the process of consolidating a participant’s savings in their current-employer plans.

Plugging the biggest hole in the U.S. retirement system bucket would help millions of Americans improve their retirement outcomes. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) forecasts that, if auto portability were implemented across the country, up to $1.5 trillion, measured in today’s dollars, would be preserved in the retirement system.

Fortunately for plan participants and sponsors alike, the White House and government agencies also realize the benefits of widespread auto portability. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued guidance on auto portability through an Advisory Opinion as well as a Prohibited Transaction Exemption clarifying fiduciary liability for sponsors who adopt auto portability as a new feature of their automatic rollover service.

This crucial DOL guidance helps to clear the way for the nationwide implementation of auto portability—helping all Americans, and especially women and minorities, save more for retirement. In his remarks at the White House on December 12, 2018 (during the signing ceremony for the executive order establishing the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council), Robert L. Johnson noted that 60% of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans cash out their 401(k) accounts—and the nationwide adoption of auto portability “will put close to $800 billion back in the retirement pockets of minority Americans.”

Now that an innovative solution has been created to address the root cause of the majority of leakage (cash-outs), it is good to see that a creative tool like the sidecar account has also been developed to help participants avoid making choices (i.e. dipping into their retirement savings to pay emergency expenses) that cause the remaining asset leakage. We look forward to watching auto portability and sidecar accounts gain further traction in the market in 2019.

Back