Employers can be very frustrating. They may not give us as much vacation time as we want. They don't want us to work comfortably in the office in pajamas and fuzzy slippers. They rarely pay us as much as we think we're worth. Yet many of them do treat us very well in some regards. Take 401(k) plans, for instance. Many employers not only permit us to sock away pre-tax money in these nifty retirement plans -- they also offer to match our savings to some degree. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), for example, matches contributions up to $2,200. Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) matches up to 70% of contributions. Target (NYSE:TGT) matches employee contributions dollar for dollar, up to 5% of salary. These sums are potential goldmines, and yet many of us are walking away from this free money.

The folks at the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America (PSCA) recently released a report praising the power of 401(k)s and lamenting the fact that too many ignore them. PSCA President David Wray explained, "An employee who takes full advantage of their employer's matching contribution can increase their retirement savings by as much as 50%.... That's free money that could be worth $230,000 or more after 20 years of saving in a 401(k) plan. That $230,000 could buy a participant a 20-year payment during retirement of almost $23,500 per year (assuming 8% rate of investment return)."

Applying the findings of an AonCorp. (NYSE:AOC) survey to all U.S. employees, PSCA estimates that those not taking advantage of company matching funds are "walking away from about $30 billion dollars. This reflects the matching contributions left behind by employees who are either not saving in their employers' 401(k) plan or are not saving enough to get the full matching contribution." Nearly 20% of workers aren't taking advantage of their 401(k), and many of those who do contribute less than they should or could.

This is more than just discouraging. It's potentially tragic. It's no secret that the future of Social Security is uncertain. And you've surely noticed that few companies these days offer traditional pensions. More than ever, it's becoming the responsibility of the individual to save for retirement.

Look into what retirement benefits your employer offers and take advantage of them as much as you can. If you can sock away 6% of your $40,000 salary into a 401(k) plan annually, that's $2,400 less income that you'll be taxed on, and $2,400 more that will be invested for your future. If $2,400 grows at 8% per year for 25 years, it becomes $16,400. If your employer matches 50% of your contributions, you'll get $1,200 of free money for the year, raising your total deposit to $3,600 and its potential end result 25 years later to $24,650.

Don't ignore planning for retirement. It doesn't have to be painful. Master it on your own, or let us help you. Check out some of our articles below, and consider taking advantage of a free trial to our nifty new Rule Your Retirement newsletter.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.