Close to half of workers who take part in 401(k) plans cash out of the plans when they leave their employers, according to researchers at Hewitt Associates Inc.[@@]

The researchers at Hewitt, Lincolnshire, Ill., a consulting firm, studied about 200,000 401(k) plan participants and found that 45% elected to take cash distributions once they left their jobs.

Although 32% of departing plan participants kept their savings in their current 401(k) plans, only 23% rolled the money over into qualified individual retirement arrangements or other retirement plans.

One danger is that some workers may become “serial consumers” of their 401(k) savings, cashing in their accounts each time they leave an employer and not putting any money away toward retirement, says Lori Lucas, Hewitt’s director of participant research.

Younger workers were more likely to cash out than older workers, but many older employees cashed out, too.

About 66% of workers ages 20 to 29 cashed out, and even 42% of workers ages 40 to 49 cashed out, researchers report.