The convenience of 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored retirement plans have turned many Americans into investors. That’s good news, since it is becoming evident that fewer retirees in the future will have substantial pensions and more will have to rely on their own savings to cover their needs.

Statistics show, however, that the average American will change jobs at least 10 times throughout his or her lifetime. This could make it more difficult to maintain a retirement account, unfortunately, since many people opt to “cash out” their retirement savings when they leave their jobs.

In fact, according to a 2003 survey by global human resources services firm Hewitt Associates, 42 percent of people cash out their retirement savings when they change jobs. The number is higher for younger people and people with lower balances: 50 percent of people aged 20 to 29 cash out, while 72 percent take cash if the account balance is between $5,000 and $10,000.

There is a smarter way to handle your retirement fund when you change jobs: Simply roll it over. By transferring your funds to a Rollover IRA, you avoid paying taxes now, giving your money the opportunity to grow tax-deferred. You also won’t be hit with an early-withdrawal penalty if you don’t take out funds before you turn 59 1/2.

Among the many financial firms offering Rollover IRAs, T. Rowe Price has one of the more simple and flexible solutions. Its free interactive CD-ROM, “The T. Rowe Price Rollover Planner,” helps investors decide what to do with their existing 401(k)s when changing jobs or retiring.

“The T. Rowe Price Rollover Planner” includes a distribution calculator that allows investors to compare the dramatic differences between taking cash distributions when changing jobs and keeping the money invested in tax-deferred accounts.

For example, a 35-year-old with $25,000 in a 401(k) who chooses to cash out would end up with just $15,750, assuming a 27 percent tax rate and a 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty. If the money were rolled over to an IRA, however, the account would be worth an estimated $252,000 before taxes when the individual reaches age 65, assuming an 8 percent average annual rate of return.

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