Just like owning a hammer and saw doesn't make you a master carpenter, owning a 401(k) and occasionally tossing a few dollars into it doesn't mean you're setting yourself up for retirement success. If you truly want to be a 401(k) master, try these five tips for maximizing your nest egg's growth.
1. Don't skip your employer match
Many companies that offer 401(k)s are willing to give employees some money toward their future as an added perk. For example, if your company offers a 3% dollar-for-dollar match and you put 3% of your salary in your 401(k), your company will give you an additional 3%, meaning you're saving 6% of your salary per year.
A 401(k) match is free money, so claim it unless you need every penny you earn for your living expenses today. Ask your company's HR department, if you're unsure how your company's 401(k) match works.
2. Try to keep your fees low
You may not realize it, but your 401(k) charges fees that come directly out of your account every year. Some fees pertain to administrative expenses, like record keeping, while others are directly related to the assets your money is invested in. Mutual funds, for example, charge an annual fee known as an expense ratio. You'll always have to pay something if you want to invest your money, but you should try to keep it within reason.
Try to avoid giving up more than 1% of your assets every year if you can. A 1% annual fee might not sound like much, but that's $1,000 every year for every $100,000 you have in the account. Over time, it adds up.
Check over your 401(k) summary and your prospectus to learn about what you're paying in fees or talk with your plan administrator. See if there are lower-cost investments you could move some or all of your money into if you're paying more than you'd like to in fees.
You may be able to encourage your employer to offer more low-cost options, like index funds, if it doesn't already, but it doesn't have to comply. If you're paying a lot in fees and you're not getting an employer match, consider moving your money to an IRA instead. It's usually more affordable and gives you greater freedom to invest your money how you choose.
3. Pick the right investments
With a 401(k), you're usually limited to a few options pre-selected by your employer, so you may not have that much say in what you invest in. But it doesn't hurt to explore all of your choices and talk with your employer about adding new ones if you don't find anything that suits you.
Fees are one thing to bear in mind, but you also need to think about your risk tolerance. This is different for everyone, but as a general rule, you should invest more aggressively when you're young and more conservatively as you age. Investing aggressively can bring larger returns, but it also carries a greater risk of loss -- one that can be devastating on the verge of retirement.
If you're not happy with the investment options available to you, consider transferring some of the money in your 401(k) to an IRA. As mentioned above, this leaves you free to choose virtually any type of investment for your savings and change your investment portfolio as often as you'd like.
4. Max out your contributions if you can
You're allowed to contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) in 2020 and 2021 or $26,000 if you're 50 or older. You may not be able to make the maximum contribution, but if you can, all the better. Just contribute the most you can comfortably afford to and raise this amount when you are able. The more you contribute, the more money you'll end up with in the end if you've made smart investments.
You can free up more cash for retirement savings by looking for areas to trim your budget, like canceling subscriptions you aren't using. You may also be able to lower your essential costs through simple actions like keeping the thermostat a few degrees higher or lower than normal.
5. Don't withdraw money early
Some 401(k)s allow loans, and the CARES Act allows penalty-free 401(k) withdrawals in 2020 for those under 59 1/2 who've been hurt by the pandemic. But just because these options are available doesn't mean you should use them.
Withdrawing money from your 401(k) will still hurt your retirement savings' growth in the long term because the money won't be in your account for as much time and you won't end up with as much investment earnings. That means you'll have to put in even more of your own money to catch up to where you would've been if you'd left your retirement savings untouched.
Explore other options, like using emergency savings, before you withdraw funds from your retirement savings. If you do take money out, make sure you understand the consequences both to your retirement savings and your tax bill this year.
These five tips will help you get the most from your 401(k), but you need to monitor your situation regularly. At least once a year, review your 401(k) investments and how much you're contributing to make sure you're not leaving any money on the table.