Even the grumpiest bear market since the Great Depression didn't detract from the benefits consistent participation in 401(k) plans offer, according to a joint study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute and the Investment Company Institute released Thursday.

In fact, those who have stayed with their 401(k)s since 1999 have 50% more savings to show for it through both contributions and market appreciation, according to Jack VanDerhei, an EBRI fellow and a professor at Temple University.

"The overriding point is that if you steadily contribute, the market will do what the market will do, but you will have a decent outcome over time," he said.

The two Washington, D.C.-based organizations reviewed data for 17.6 million workers who participated in 401(k) plans between 1999 and 2005, more than one-third of 47 million investor national defined contribution market.

Younger workers in their 20s who typically contribute smaller amounts at the beginning of their careers, saw their balances increase, on average, 695% over the six-year span to $24,169.

Workers in their 60s, on the other hand, who had larger balances at the start of the study period, still saw their savings, on average, increase to $140,957, or by 12%.

The study focused on consistent savers, who, whether they contributed to their own account regularly, stayed with the same provider, to keep from skewing data. For example, a 60-year old who recently moved jobs may have saved $150,000 thorough his or her previous employer's plan and rolled that into a IRA Rollover, but have a very low balance in the plan sponsored by the new employer. Such switching would skew data, and reflect poorly, and inaccurately, on overall savings figures.

The EBRI/ICI study also found that people have also gotten the message about the importance of diversification. The amounts workers invest in their employers' stock continues to decrease, a trend that took off with the much-storied implosion of Enron in 2001.

Meanwhile, either lifecycle, or target-date, funds and life-style, or target-risk, funds, continue to gain popularity, especially among workers at the outset of their careers. 

"401(k) plan participants are looking for ways to simplify or automate their accounts," said Sarah Holden, chief economist for ICI.

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