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The average 401k account balance hit a new high, but that doesn't mean savers are confident about their ability to save enough for retirement, studies show.

The average 401k account balance hit $74,900 at the end of the first quarter, a 12% increase from a year earlier, a 58% jump from the first quarter of 2009 and the highest level since Fidelity Investments started tracking the data, in 1998, according to the retirement-plan provider. Fidelity manages plans for 11 million participants.

People who had contributed continuously for 10 years had an average balance of $191,000, said Beth McHugh, vice president of market insights for Fidelity. Among those 55 or older who had contributed continuously for the past decade, the average balance was $233,800, she said.

About two-thirds of the increase in account balances is due to market gains, and one-third is employer and employee contributions, McHugh said.

Savers appeared to be more optimistic in one respect: About 10% of plan participants increased their contribution rate in the first quarter -- the largest percentage to do so since Fidelity started tracking that data in 2006. A year ago, 7.6% of 401k savers increased their contribution rates.

The average contribution rate stayed at 8.2% of pay, the same that it's been for the past two years. In early 2008, the rate was 8.8%, and in early 2006 it was 8.9%, according to Fidelity.

Still, even as the average account balance marches higher and more people increase the amount they're setting aside for retirement, a separate survey found that a majority of workers say they're not on track to save enough for retirement.

Just 21% of workers surveyed said they are on track with their retirement savings, down from 37% in 2005, according to the annual Retirement Confidence Survey, conducted for the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Twenty-seven percent of workers said they are "not at all confident" about saving enough money for a comfortable retirement, the highest level in the 21 years of the survey and up from 22% a year ago, according to the survey in January of 1,004 workers and 254 retirees, all of whom live in the United States and are at least 25 years old.

The survey is conducted for EBRI by Mathew Greenwald & Associates, a Washington market-research company.

Fully 70% of those surveyed said they are not where they need to be in terms of saving for retirement, EBRI said.

"Not surprisingly, the (survey) found that the likelihood of feeling a lot behind schedule is inversely related to household income, household assets, health status and education: The less income, assets, education and health status, the more behind workers tend to feel," EBRI said in a recent news release.

While 31% of workers said they need to save less than $250,000 for retirement, an additional 19% said their goal is $250,000 to $499,999, and 22% said they need to save $500,000 to $999,999, according to EBRI. Seven percent said they need to save $1 million to $1.49 million, and 10% said they need $1.5 million or more.

Wild guesses

But a lot of these figures are pure guesswork: 42% of workers surveyed said they guessed at how much money they need to see them through retirement.

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Another study that looked at the savings habits of more than 23 million defined-contribution-plan participants (including 401k and other types of defined-contribution plans) found a small sign of optimism. Just 2.4% of savers stopped contributing to their plans in 2010, down from 3.4% in 2009, according to the Investment Company Institute's latest quarterly study. ICI is a fund-industry trade group.

But the ICI study found that the percentage of savers who took a loan from their retirement plan ticked higher: 18.2% of plan participants had an outstanding loan at the end of last year, up from 16.5% a year earlier.

In the Fidelity study, 22.1% of plan participants had a 401k loan outstanding, about flat from 22.5% a year earlier.

Fidelity found that 2.7% of savers initiated a loan in the first quarter, about flat from 2.8% in the first quarter of 2010.