We were asked: "My company's 401(k) plan makes my eyes glaze over. It's full of unfamiliar words such as 'aggressive growth,' 'bond,' 'gold,' 'emerging growth,' 'international, value,' and 'money market funds.' I haven't a clue what to do about it, so I've been doing nothing. Any advice?"

Our answer: You're not alone. It isn't as complex as it looks, though.

Here are some tips:

  • Begin participating in your company's plan as soon as possible, contributing as much as you can. It not only builds your nest egg, but also reduces your taxable income.
  • Keep emergency money separate. Invest only what you don't expect to need for at least five years. (Note: There's a penalty on withdrawals before age 59 1/2.)
  • If your employer matches your contributions to any degree, take full advantage of the available matching -- it's free money.
  • Stocks might be scary, but over the long run, they perform best -- by far. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of 401(k) money is in low-yielding bond or money market funds, where it grows very slowly.
  • Your best stock-fund bet is probably a stock market index fund (such as one tracking the S&P 500 or the "total market"), which usually outperforms most other mutual funds and has lower annual fees, to boot. If your 401(k) plan doesn't include such a fund as an option, urge your payroll professional to have one added. Every 401(k) plan in the nation should include a stock market index fund.
  • Leave your money in the plan for as long as possible. This delays the ultimate tax bite and permits maximum growth. Don't borrow from your account unless it's an emergency.

Taking advantage of your 401(k) means you shouldn't end up having to rely on government programs like Social Security.

Learn more about retirement issues in our retirement area and in our 401(k), IRA, and annuity areas, too.

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