Like many New York commuters who live in the suburbs and work in the city, I have a set routine. In the morning I read my paper and on the return home, I manage to grab a 20-minute nap before the conductor shakes me awake and gently demands to see my ticket.

One evening last week somebody went and spoiled it.

A passenger, who obviously had spent some time in the waiting area next to a portable bar, was complaining loudly that his employer had automatically enrolled him in, and I quote, “In one-a ‘dem 1-oh-K-4 plans.”

The man in question was middle aged and, obviously, in no danger of assuming the reins of any company within three area codes of the Fortune 500. Still, I was astounded that in this day and age, how many people have little or no knowledge of employer savings plans like a 401(k), which has been around for roughly a quarter-century.

Each year, dozens of major financial firms release surveys on employee savings habits and I never fail to be shocked on the percentage of workers who voluntarily choose to bypass their company savings and retirement plans — despite many of them offering employer matches up to 5 percent. To me, and I’m sure many others, that was, and is, like tossing away free money.

Many companies now offer automatic enrollment, unlike my first 401(k) plan in which I had to work for my former company for one calendar year before I was allowed to participate.

In the category of “you’ll thank me later,” the Treasury and the IRS recently have issued a series of proposed regulations that would make it easier for companies to automatically enroll employees in 401(k) plans at a predefined contribution percentage.

Under their guidelines, employers that offer 401(k) plans must specify what specific contributions would apply to employees covered under the plan who don’t elect specific contributions.

Historically, most employers had designed their plans to treat non-participating employees as if said employees elected no contributions.

More recently however, under the automatic contribution arrangements, those employees are automatically enrolled in the 401(k) plan at a predefined percentage.

Automatic enrollment appears to be popular, as a recent poll showed that 98 percent of those surveyed indicated they were glad that their company offered automatic enrollment, with a scant 7 percent of automatic enrollees opting out of the plan.

Though he may bitch about it now in an alcohol-fueled oratory, I trust that boisterous passenger, like other automatic enrollees will be grateful later on, when their evening meal isn’t cooked squirrel and their retirement homes aren’t used refrigerator boxes.


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