Average 401(k) balances ended 2009 at $64,200, rising 28% for the year and 5.7% in the fourth quarter, Fidelity reported Wednesday, citing the activity of its 11 million participants in more than 17,000 defined contribution plans.

The median one-year personal rate of return in 2009 was nearly 27%, on par with the S&P 500’s 26% return. The contribution rate of 8.2% remained flat for the year, but in the fourth quarter, more people increased their deferral rates than decreased them, Fidelity said.

“The good news is that many workers, in spite of the economy, chose to save in their 401(k)s throughout 2009, and as the markets recovered, so did many Americans’ account balances,” said Jim MacDonald, president of workplace investing at Fidelity.

For those who continued to invest in their 401(k) for the past 10 years, their account balances increased an impressive 150% to $163,900 from $65,800. These investors had a median age of 51 years and a deferral rate of 10.4%.

“When we took a longer-term view and looked at the past decade,” MacDonald continued, “we found that many participants were able to significantly grow their nest egg despite periods of great market volatility.”

Fidelity also found that 66% of participants who took a higher risk with their asset allocations over the past decade compared to an appropriate age-based target-date fund experienced lower returns.

Fidelity also learned that investors are moving away from higher equity exposure to more balanced portfolios; in 2000, participants directed 80% or more of their new contribution dollars into equities, but by 2009, that fell to 70%. In line with this, the percentage of people directing 100% of their contributions to equities fell from 47% to 19%. And, at the end of 2009, 65% of employers were using target-date funds as their default investment option.

As measured by use of Fidelity’s portfolio review and retirement quick check online tools, which rose 62% in 2009 from the year before, Fidelity said more and more participants are seeking guidance.

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