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Employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, similar individual retirement savings plans, and traditional pension plans, are among the primary vehicles through which workers in the U.S. save for retirement. People who participate in these retirement plans receive important notices or statements about their plans that show participants their account balance or how well funded the plan is, communication about changes to the investments, year-end documents provided for tax purposes, and various other documents.

spinner image Older couple reviewing retirement documents

In March 2024, we surveyed 595 adults age 50 or over who have a retirement savings plan or pension from a current or former employer in order to learn what they think of their retirement plan notices, how they access them, what plan information is most important to them, and how they think plan notices could be improved. We also asked some questions designed to examine understanding of plan fees and their impact on retirement investments.

Most report at least some understanding of their plan notices, but many lack basic knowledge about fees.

Fewer than half (45%) of adults 50-plus who have employer-sponsored retirement plans say that they completely understand the notices they receive from their plans, while nearly as many (43%) say they somewhat understand them. Another 12% understand them just a little or not at all.

Importantly, the survey reveals a lack of awareness of fees charged by plans, as well as a desire for more information about fees. All retirement plans charge fees, such as fees for managing the plan as a whole and fees for managing the plan’s investments. In spite of this, when asked to describe their understanding of the fees that they pay in their retirement plan, 40% of participants 50-plus in all types of retirement plans say that they don’t pay fees on their retirement plan, and another 16% say that they have never thought about this. Just 27% say that they understand the fees and know where to find information about them.

Fees are especially relevant to participants in 401(k)-type retirement savings plans, as participants in these types of plans typically can choose from a selection of available investments and may switch to investments with lower fees if desired. However, while all 401(k)-type plans charge plan participants fees, even among participants in 401(k)-type plans, roughly one in four (24%) think that they don’t pay fees in their retirement plan and another 18% say that they have never thought about fees. Only one in three (34%) 401(k)-type plan participants 50-plus say that they understand their plan fees and know where to find fee-related information.

Furthermore, the survey suggests that many respondents are unable to make basic fee calculations that would enable them to assess the impact of these fees on their retirement investments. When presented with an explanation of retirement plan fees for a hypothetical retirement plan, many respondents were unable to correctly calculate the total fees that a participant in the hypothetical plan would pay. Specifically, in one exercise, just 54% of respondents correctly calculated the fees, while in another exercise just 64% of respondents correctly calculated the fees.

Fees can have a significant impact on account balances.

Plan participants’ lack of knowledge about fees may lead participants to choose plan investments that they may not have chosen if they had better understood the potential long-term impact of these fees. For example, according to an investment fees calculator developed by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a retirement saver who starts contributing $175 every two weeks to a retirement plan early in their career, with an average rate of return of 6% and annual fees of just 0.05% will end up with over $300,000 more in total retirement savings after 40 years than if they had been charged annual fees of 2.05%. This will directly impact standard of living in retirement, and may mean the difference between retiring when planned, or working several additional years. It is therefore very important that retirement investors understand what the fees are in a retirement plan and how those fees impact their account balances.

Updates about account balances and how much income to expect in retirement are deemed especially important.

Most respondents say that it is very important to them to receive regular updates about their account balance and about how much income they can expect to receive in retirement. Many also say that regular updates about performance, investment mix, and fees are very important:

  • Account balance, including each investment balance (64%)
  • How much income you can expect to receive per year in retirement from your account balance (58%)
  • How the performance of your investments compares to other investments (45%)
  • Whether your investment mix is appropriate for your age (42%)
  • How fees affect your investment returns (42%)
  • How fees for your investments compare to fees for other available investments (37%)

Many would value a phone number to call with questions and an upfront summary of key points.

When asked how their retirement plan notices could be improved, nearly half (48%) of retirement plan participants 50 or over say that it would be helpful for notices to include a phone number for participants to call if they have questions. Nearly as many say that the following would also be helpful: an upfront summary of key points (43%), an online resource center (40%), and simplified language (39%).


Interviews were conducted from March 14–18, 2024 using the Foresight 50+ Omnibus. The final sample includes 595 U.S. adults 50-plus who have either an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan or an employer-funded traditional pension plan from a current or former employer. Funded and operated by NORC at the University of Chicago, Foresight 50+ is a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population age 50 or older. Interviews were conducted online and via phone. All data are weighted by age, sex, education, race/ethnicity, region, and AARP membership.

For more information, contact S. Kathi Brown in AARP Research at Media inquiries should be directed to