Some Participants Reducing 401(k) Deferrals to Contribute to HSAs

Industry sources have recommended that participants adopt a savings hierarchy for retirement plan and health savings account contributions.

More than half (56%) of 401(k) participants reduced their retirement plan contributions in the first year that they made health savings account (HSA) contributions, according to a study conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

In general, as income increases, the percentage of participants reducing their deferrals to their 401(k) increases in the first year that they made HSA contributions. There was also a spike among low-income workers in the percentage making a reduction.

EBRI found that the “crowding out” of HSA savings on retirement savings was modest at the median: The median dollar reduction in participant 401(k) contributions in the first year of HSA contributions was $34. However, deferral rates decreased by $5,127 at the 10th percentile.

Higher HSA contributions were associated with lower 401(k) contributions. While at the median, 401(k) contributions fell $315 among HSA participants allocating more than $4,350, among HSA participants committing $1,000 or less, median 401(k) contributions fell only $8.

“Not only does the amount of 401(k) contributions decrease as HSA contribution levels increase, the higher the 401(k) contribution, the greater the reduction in 401(k) contribution among those who contributed to their HSA for the first time,” says Paul Fronstin, director of the health research and education program at EBRI and coauthor of the report.

Specifically, 401(k) contributions fell $482 in the year following initial HSA deferrals among those allocating more than 10% of their income in the year prior to the HSA contribution. They fell $49 among those contributing 6% to 10% of their income. At the median, 401(k) deferrals were essentially unaffected among participants contributing 6% or less of their income.

The results of the EBRI survey highlight the need for retirement plan participants to establish a savings hierarchy. During the 2018 PLANSPONSOR HSA Conference, Jack Towarnicky, executive director of the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA), advocated for saving enough to get the employer match in both the retirement plan and the HSA, if the HSA offers an employer match and if the participant can afford it. Otherwise, Towarnicky said the common-sense approach is to contribute an initial amount to fund the HSA and contribute up to the full match in the 401(k). Participants can then alternate contributions between the two vehicles.

More recently, Brian Hanna, a partner and executive vice president at Everhart Advisors, told PLANSPONSOR, “What’s becoming more accepted as a best practice is that you should save into your qualified employer plan up to the match level first. Then you should save into your HSA up to the maximum annual contribution—and not spend your HSA on an annualized basis but use it as a retirement savings vehicle. Then, if you have any money available for savings, you can go back to the 401(k) and make a higher contribution.”

The EBRI report—“Two’s a Crowd: Do HSA Contributions Crowd out 401(k) Contributions?”—is available at