You're counting on your 401(k) to help you afford retirement, but are you doing all you can to maximize your earnings? If you haven't tried the five things listed below, there's a good chance you're missing out on opportunities to help grow your wealth even faster.

1. Get your full employer match

Some companies match a portion of their employees' annual 401(k) contributions. It could be a dollar-for-dollar match or a $0.50-on-the-dollar match, up to a certain percentage of your income. In either case, it could be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year. And that's before you factor in how much it could grow to after a few decades in your 401(k).

Person lying on bed looking at laptop screen and writing note.

Image source: Getty Images.

If you're unsure whether your company offers a 401(k) match or how its matching structure works, talk to the HR department to find out. Learn how much you must contribute to get the full match and aim to set aside at least this much every year if you can. 

Check into your company's vesting schedule too if you've only been there a few years. Vesting schedules determine when you get to keep your company match if you leave your employer. Quitting too soon could cause you to lose some or all of this money, so try to stick it out until you're fully vested.

2. Contribute as much as you can

You're allowed to contribute up to $19,500 to your 401(k) in 2021, and adults 50 and older can also set aside an extra $6,500 in catch-up contributions. This brings their maximum 2021 contribution to $26,000. 

It may not be possible for you to contribute this much to your retirement right now, but setting aside as much as you can spare will help you reach your retirement goals more quickly. If you're worried about forgetting to put aside money yourself, you can automate your contributions so the money comes right out of your paychecks.

3. Stick to low-cost investments

Fees eat into your profits over time, so it's best to try to keep them as low as possible. You cannot do anything about your 401(k)'s administrative fees, which cover things like recordkeeping and maintaining the website where you can manage your account.

You have some control over your investment fees, though. Since most 401(k)s give you a choice between several mutual funds, you'll mostly be dealing with expense ratios. These are annual fees all shareholders pay, and they're usually listed as a percentage of your assets. 

You can find out how much you're paying by checking your prospectus. Ideally, you should aim to keep your expense ratios at 1% or lower. This means you'll give away $1 or less per year for every $100 you have invested in the fund.

4. Choose the right time to pay taxes

An increasing number of employers are offering Roth 401(k)s in addition to traditional 401(k)s, so employees can choose when they want to pay taxes on their retirement savings. While you can contribute to both, it's best to put the bulk of your money in the one you think will provide you with the greatest tax advantages.

Traditional 401(k) contributions reduce your tax bill this year, but then you must pay taxes on your contributions and earnings when you withdraw them in retirement. This is usually the way to go if you believe you're in a higher tax bracket today than you will be once you retire.

You pay taxes on your Roth 401(k) contributions this year, but in exchange, you can make tax-free withdrawals in retirement. If you think you're in the same or a lower tax bracket now than you will be once you retire, you'll probably save yourself a lot in taxes by contributing to one of these accounts.

5. Avoid early withdrawals whenever possible

Some 401(k)s permit loans, and all of them allow withdrawals, as long as you're willing to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you're under 59 1/2. But taking money out of your 401(k) before retirement usually isn't a good idea. 

In addition to the penalties, you're slowing the growth of your savings. That means you'll have to set aside even more money per month going forward to retire when you originally planned. If that's not possible, you may have to work for longer or plan to tighten the belt in retirement.

Save some money in an emergency fund to help you cover unplanned expenses so you don't have to dip into your retirement savings to help you pay your bills.

A 401(k)'s usefulness depends on your decisions. If you haven't done any of the things listed above, now may be the time to make an effort. You should also review your retirement plan at least once per year to see if you need to make any changes to keep yourself on track for the future you want.