New York (CNN/Money) – It's another blow to retirement planning.
Faced with the need to severely cut costs, companies are slowly pulling the plug on matching contributions to 401(k) plans. In the past year, some of the companies that have stopped or greatly reduced contributions to 401(k) plans include Charles Schwab, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Goodyear Tire, General Motors, Delphi, Bethlehem Steel, US News & World Report, Wyndham International, Great Northern Paper, Tech Data, El Paso Corporation and CMS Energy Company.
To be sure, the list remains small, but the cuts have caught retirement experts by surprise. They are warning already that workers will have yet more of a burden to take charge of their financial future and not to count on help from their employers.
"It's just another sign of how fragile our retirement system is," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "As long as the economy is weak and profits are down, people will look for ways to save money and I think there's a chance we will see more of this."
401(k) is retirement cornerstone for many
In most plans, employers match contributions their employees make, up to a certain limit. Matching funds average 2.5 percent of a worker's contribution to a 401(k). Someone earning $50,000 a year might contribute $5,000, or 10 percent, and get a company match of $1,250.
Even without a match, tax advantages make 401(k)s a good deal. Workers direct money from their paychecks before taxes, and gains on investments grow tax-free until withdrawn at retirement.
But the match is still big incentive, and some retirement experts worry that reducing or cutting it will discourage saving among lower paid workers -- a big problem at a time when traditional pensions are also being phased out.
That would affect highly paid staffers too. That's because so-called "non-discrimination" rules for 401(k) plans prohibit highly compensated employees -- those who earn more than $90,000 -- from contributing more than 2 percent more into their plans than lower-paid workers.
That means while theoretically it's possible to save up to $12,000 in a 401(k) -- or $14,000 for workers over 50 -- employees may be limited to far less if their lower-paid colleagues don't sign up. In fact, lower-paid employees are saving an average of 5.2 percent of their pay in 401(k) plans, thereby limiting richer workers to about 7.2 percent savings rates, said David Wray, president at Profit Sharing/401k Council of America.
"It would definitely have an impact and reduce the amount that highly compensated employees can contribute," Wray said.
Shift gears if 401(k) dollars dry up
So, what to do if your matching funds get cut?
If you can, make up for the shortfall by putting away more on your own. In general, retirees need 70 percent of their current income in their Golden Years. But many are not saving enough to meet this goal. (To find out how much you need at retirement, use our retirement calculator.)
Once you compute what you need, you can either stash more money into your 401(k) until you reach your limit. Another option: fund a Roth IRA. Roth contributions aren't deductible and they are made with after-tax dollars, which means you don't lower your taxable income now as you do by diverting funds into a 401(k). But earnings grow tax-free and are withdrawn tax free. Moreover, you don't have to take Roth withdrawals – called distributions – at a certain date.
For more details, see Roth vs. 401(k) and The IRA/401(k) battle.