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  • Writer's pictureBen LeFort

The Impact of Present Bias on Retirement Savings: Strategies for Staying on Track

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

A jar of coin with a leaf sprouting from it.

Saving for retirement is an essential financial goal that many people struggle to achieve. In the United States, defined contribution pension plans are a popular way to save for retirement. These plans often include automatic savings features such as auto-enrollment, which has been shown to have a large short-term effect on participation and contribution rates. However, a recent study titled "Present Bias Causes and Then Dissipates Auto-

Enrollment Savings Effects" suggests that auto-enrollment may not be as effective in the long run, especially for those with present bias.

Present bias is a cognitive bias that affects people's decisions by prioritizing immediate needs over long-term goals. For example, someone with present bias may choose to spend money on a vacation instead of putting it toward their retirement savings. The study found that while auto-enrollment can have a positive short-term effect on retirement savings, it may have only a modest average impact in the long run, especially for those with present bias.

The Impact of Auto-Enrollment on Retirement Savings

Auto-enrollment is a feature in pension plans that signs up employees automatically and sets a default contribution rate. This feature increases participation and contribution rates in the short term. However, a study found that present bias can prevent this effect and lead to lower savings before retirement.

The study shows two ways present bias affects savings. First, it causes procrastination, so employees stick with auto-enrollment defaults. Second, present bias leads to over-consumption. When employees leave an employer, their 401(k) balances move to a more accessible IRA account. This account allows for distributions for any reason and can empty before retirement.

The study also found that without present bias, auto-enrollment does not affect savings outcomes in an exponential model. This model assumes a discount function and small costs to change contribution rates in a 401(k). However, present-biased employees may follow their employer's default while still employed and spend new savings when they leave the employer and the savings become more accessible.

What Can You Do to Combat Present Bias?

If you want to improve your retirement savings and avoid the negative impacts of present bias, there are a few strategies you can use:

1. Set Specific Goals

One way to combat present bias is to set specific goals for your retirement savings. Instead of just focusing on a vague goal like "saving for retirement," set a specific target, like saving a certain percentage of your income each year.

This can help you stay focused on your long-term goal and prioritize it over short-term needs.

2. Get Professional Help

If you're struggling to save for retirement or feel overwhelmed by the process, consider seeking professional help. A financial advisor can help you create a personalized retirement savings plan based on your unique goals and needs. They can also provide accountability and guidance to help you stay on track.

3. Use Behavioral Nudges

Behavioral nudges can help counteract present bias by making it easier for you to save for retirement. For example, you can set up automatic contributions to your retirement account or use a savings app that rounds up your purchases and invests the spare change.

4. Focus on the Long-Term Benefits

When you're tempted to spend money on something in the present, remind yourself of the long-term benefits of saving for retirement. This can help you stay motivated and overcome the temptation to spend money on short-term wants.

5. Create a Budget

Creating a budget can help you prioritize your spending and ensure that you have enough money to save for retirement. By setting limits on your spending in different categories, you can avoid overspending in the present and make sure that you're saving enough for the future.


Saving for retirement is an important goal, but it can be challenging to stay on track, especially when present bias is at play. By understanding the impact of present bias on retirement savings and taking steps to combat it, you can improve your chances of reaching your long-term financial goals. Remember to take advantage of automatic savings features, set specific goals, and seek professional help if you need it. By doing so, you can ensure a comfortable retirement and financial security.



This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered Financial or Legal Advice. Not all information will be accurate. Consult a financial professional before making any major financial decisions.

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