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Weston: How small businesses can help workers save

By LIZ WESTON, NerdWallet
Published: November 21, 2020, 6:00am

Donna Skemp of Bend, Ore., struggled to save before she signed up for an automatic savings plan offered by her employer’s payroll services company. Now, some of her pay goes into a federally insured, interest-paying savings account that she can access any time with a debit card.

“It’s painless, and it’s so easy,” says Skemp, accounting and office manager for the nonprofit Every Kid Sports, which pays sports registration fees for children from low-income families.

Skemp is lucky — more than one-third of private-sector workers don’t have access to workplace savings plans via payroll deduction. Many small-business owners may think such plans are too expensive or complicated to administer. But that’s not necessarily so.


Americans don’t save nearly enough for emergencies or retirement, but we’re more likely to save if the money is automatically deducted from our paychecks. People are much more likely to contribute to a retirement plan, for example, if they’re offered payroll deductions, according to AARP’s Public Policy Institute. In addition, 7 of 10 working adults say they probably would participate in an emergency savings program via payroll deduction if their employer offered it.

Unfortunately, the smaller the business, the less likely it is to offer a workplace savings plan. In the past, that made sense, because the cost of setting up and administering these plans could be high. Technology and competition have lowered costs in recent years, however. Some startups and robo-advisors have been targeting the small-business 401(k) market, as have some large investment companies. Costs vary, but they don’t have to be exorbitant: JPMorgan Chase, for example, recently announced a workplace plan for small businesses with monthly charges that start at $75 a month plus $5 per participant.


Small-business owners who want an even lower-cost option could set up payroll deductions deposited into SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees) IRAs, says Mackey McNeill, a certified public accountant and personal finance specialist in Bellevue, Kentucky, who works with small businesses.

Workers can’t save as much in these as they can in a 401(k), McNeill notes. The regular contribution limit for SIMPLE IRAs was $13,500 this year, compared to $19,500 for a 401(k). But SIMPLE IRAs typically have few fees and regulatory requirements, with only one IRS form to fill out annually, McNeill says.

Those lower fees open up a way for employers to help workers save. Instead of paying $1,500 to $2,500 a year in administrative costs for a 401(k), which McNeil says is typical for her clients, small employers could use that money to help match their employees’ contributions in the SIMPLE IRA.

Another potential option is state-sponsored retirement accounts, which typically use payroll deductions to deposit money into Roth IRAs for employees. Three states — Oregon, Illinois and California — currently offer programs that are or will eventually become mandatory for most employers that don’t have retirement plans. Several other states are setting up these plans or considering it.


A big problem with retirement accounts is that they can be costly to access in an emergency because of taxes and penalties. Skemp, 60, learned that during the Great Recession more than a decade ago, when she lost her job and had to raid her retirement account to pay her mortgage.

Emergency savings accounts, either as a stand-alone benefit or one that’s connected to a retirement plan, can help prevent such costly withdrawals and improve workers’ financial stability. Several large companies now offer such accounts, while benefits companies including Gusto, the one Skemp’s employer used, and Businessolver offer the option to smaller businesses.

Even if small-business owners aren’t ready to set up a formal emergency savings program, they can encourage workers to save through split direct deposit. Any employer that offers direct deposit can offer split deposit, which allows people to automatically divide paychecks between checking and savings accounts or among accounts at different banks.

Skemp says she wishes she’d known years how important a regular, automated savings habit could be.

“I would be so far ahead of the game right now,” she says.