Your 401(k) could easily make you a millionaire. By making small, regular investments starting in your 20s or early 30s, your savings will grow tax-free over 30 or 40 years.
While opting in to make 401(k) contributions is the most important step you can take, having a sound 401(k) strategy will maximize your returns and help you reach the $1 million mark faster.
Sometimes, putting your money on autopilot is best. If you have direct deposit, you’ll never worry about running a paycheck to the bank. If you have automatic bill pay, you’ll never miss a credit card or utility bill due date.
But when it comes to your 401(k), autopilot is definitely not the way to go—even if your employer takes deductions from your pay that you hardly notice. That’s because 401(k) plans depend on their asset allocations to grow, and just a few hours of education and application can increase your lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Here we outline a 10-step 401(k) strategy for a 30-year old (although the principles are the same whether you’re 22, 30, or 35).
Always maximize your employer match
In theory, no one would turn down free money. But that’s exactly what many Americans do when they drop the ball on matching retirement funds when an employer offers them.
Many employers will match 50% (or sometimes 100%) of money that you, the employee, puts into your 401(k), up to a specified maximum percentage of your salary.
Ignoring this benefit by either not opting into your 401(k) or failing to contribute the maximum your employer will match is literally leaving a portion of your salary on the table.
Supplement your 401(k) with a Roth IRA
Some employer 401(k)s suffer from a lack of investment options. This is where an individual retirement account (IRA) comes in handy.
And if your employer doesn’t match contributions, you might choose to forgo your 401(k) altogether, says Ned Gandevani, program coordinator and professor in the master’s of science in finance program at the New England College of Business. “When there’s no contribution from your employer towards your plan, there’s no need to invest in it. By investing in a restricted plan, you end up paying too much with no benefits from your employer.”
Stock your 401(k) with stocks…
Stocks may be the most volatile investment you can make, but they’re also your best bet if you want average annual returns of 8% (or more).
The key is to make sure your 401(k) is loaded with them.
When you sign up for your 401(k), you’ll be given a worksheet or directed to go online to choose how to invest your money.
Unfortunately, many investors choose blindly.
That’s bad, because most 401(k) plans offer investments designed for very different purposes. Some will be aggressive stock funds geared toward maximizing long-term gains, but others will be conservative funds holding mostly bonds and cash. These funds are designed to minimize losses and, as a result, will generate a much smaller annual gain. That’s good if you’re close to retirement, but not so good if you have 30 years to invest.
When choosing investments in your 401(k), Amy Merrill, a principal with TrueWealth Management in Atlanta, suggests holding onto US stock funds, international stock funds, and real estate stock funds. “Look at your fund choices and try to find a fund that is more like a stock index for the category.”
Does picking investments feel overwhelming?
…but also know when to diversify
Young investors in their 20s and 30s want to invest mostly in stocks. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore other asset classes like bonds and alternatives. An 80/20 ratio of stocks to bonds is a good benchmark for investors 30 years old and younger.
For more hands-on investors, another thing to consider is the valuation of asset classes at the time you’re investing. Although you shouldn’t try to time the market, you might reasonably look at the recent run of the S&P 500 and be skeptical of its upcoming near-term performance.
Because you’re investing for 30 or more years, this certainly isn’t a reason not to invest in stocks, but it might make you consider allocating some of your funds to struggling assets that will come back with time, such as those in Europe (where the Euro is struggling).
Do NOT get carried away with your company’s stock
While it’s smart to take advantage of discounted employee stock purchase plans, you shouldn’t dedicate more than 10% to your retirement portfolio.
In fact, your portfolio should not be heavily concentrated in any one particular stock. But if you lean too heavily on employer stock, you could suffer a significant investment loss if your company goes bust.
Regularly increase your contributions
Many investors contribute just enough to their 401(k)s to get the company match. Unfortunately, that’s usually not enough to secure your retirement. Experts suggest using 10 to 15% as a benchmark. But if you can’t start there, it’s a good practice to give your 401(k) a raise whenever you receive a pay hike from your employer.
Lobby for a better 401(k)
Sometimes, your 401(k) is weak because your employer has failed to do enough with the overall plan.
“I’ll let you in on a trade secret: plan sponsors are scared of participants,” says Brandon Grandbouche, a senior retirement consultant with WealthHarbor Capital Group in New Orleans. “Employers are often embroiled in running the day-to-day affairs of the business and can have difficulty keeping up to date with all of the fiduciary duties of running a plan.”
If you’re disappointed by the investment options or fees in your 401(k), talk to your plan sponsor or HR department about potential remedies.
Balance retirement savings and paying down debt
Most likely, saving for retirement is not your only financial goal. Far from it.
You’ll likely need to balance your 401(k) contributions with paying down debt or saving for other goals like a house or a family.
That’s fine. Just don’t use competing goals as an excuse to forgo making 401(k) contributions. You’ll miss out on the prime years to make your 401(k) a million-dollar nest egg. Even if you have debt, contribute enough to your 401(k) to get your employer match. Then, as you clear money out of the debt pile, reallocate the funds to the retirement pile through payroll deductions.
Never underestimate compound interest
Starting a retirement account with steady contributions at age 20 versus 30 makes all the difference in the world.
“Albert Einstein once called compound interest ‘the most powerful force in the universe’ and he was a pretty smart guy,” says John McFarland, coordinator of the financial planning track at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. (Editor’s note: There’s no evidence Einstein actually said this, but it’s become personal finance lore.)
Let’s say a 20-year-old begins plunking down just $45 a month with a 50% company match. If she raises contributions by the same amount as any pay raises she gets, she’ll have more than $1 million by age 65. That assumes annual raises of 3.5% and an 8.5% return on 401(k) investments.
Take advantage of professional advice
In a 2014 Schwab Retirement Plan Services survey, 70% of participants said they’d be very or extremely confident in making 401(k) investment decisions with professional help. That compares to only 39% who felt that same confidence in making decisions on their own.
But it’s not just a matter of feeling safe—it’s being safe as well. “We’ve also found that nine out of 10 advice takers stayed the course during the 2008 financial crisis,” says Catherine Golladay, Schwab’s Vice President of 401(k) Participant Services. “As a result they were well positioned to take advantage of the market recovery.”
You can find advice in different places. You can start by attending seminars put on by your 401(k) plan administrator or using a powerful free app like Empower, previously known as Personal Capital, to screen your portfolio.
As your savings grow, you might consider hiring your own financial advisor who can help you plan your financial future as well as making investment recommendations. Or, again, consider the affordable 401k optimization tool, blooom.
Wealthfront is another great option if you want to balance the advantages of personalized investing strategies with the cost-saving features of robo-advisors. Wealthfront will automatically build you a personalized portfolio with diversified, low-cost index funds. You can also customize your portfolio yourself and invest in socially responsible funds, healthcare, technology, clean energy, and more.
» MORE: Read our full Wealthfront review.