Far too many companies mismanaged their pension plans during the late-1990s stock boom. A rapidly rising market enticed many companies to both book tremendous gains on their pension investments and dial their future return expectations upward.

As we know in hindsight -- and plan managers should have known all along -- that party ended with a wreck.

Rather than admit their mistakes, pony up the cash, and protect the pension benefits that helped attract, motivate, and keep their best employees, many companies weaseled out. They froze their pensions, converted to 401(k)-style retirement plans, and thrust the biggest part of the burden of saving for retirement on their employees.

Today's tools
For young, motivated employees who were willing to contribute from their first day on the job, the change could mean a better and sooner retirement. For everyone else, though, a lost pension can be quite painful.

That said, unless you've been maxing out your 401(k) since the day you became eligible to participate in it, you're losing your most valuable retirement resource -- time. Not only that, but you're also very likely ignoring your next most valuable retirement resource, too -- free money.

That's right ... free money
Today, companies commonly match employees' contributions to their 401(k) plans. Of course, the key word is matching. In order to get the company's money for your retirement, you need to contribute some of your own, too.

Don't despair, though -- your boss isn't the only one dangling cash in your direction based on your contribution. If your 401(k) is a traditional one, Uncle Sam will offer you a tax deferral for your contribution, too. Add them both together and, as this table shows, there's still a decent chunk of cash available to you to help fund your retirement:




to Employee

Lowe's (NYSE:LOW)




Lennar (NYSE:LEN)




Iomega (NYSE:IOM)




Level 3 Commnunications




Chevron (NYSE:CVX)




Alcoa** (NYSE:AA)








Assumes $50,000 salary, 15% tax bracket, $15,500 contributions. *Match made in company stock. **Includes automatic contribution as well as match. 

The modern golden handcuffs
Of course, this major cash giveaway doesn't only benefit employees. Companies and their investors win, too. A recent study revealed that 72% of employees picked their employers in part based on their benefits package. Even more important, 83% consider their benefits as a major factor in their staying put. Given the costs of recruiting, training, lost productivity, and declining morale caused by excessively high turnover, a good benefits package can more than pay for itself.

Regardless of your boss's motivation for offering you a match, the total benefit does add up to a significant sum of cash available to help you fund your retirement. It does, however, depend heavily on you. Except in the case of Alcoa, you have to contribute in order to get the benefits.

Get started now
If you once thought you'd have a solid pension to take you through your golden years, it might be scary to learn that you're now in charge of planning your retirement. But that's nothing compared to what you will be facing if you keep putting it off until it's too late.

For more information on how to retire rich, we're offering you the chance to take the next 30 days to try Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement for free. With the tools, team, and community that my colleague Robert Brokamp has assembled to help you get on track, that just might be the most important month for your financial future. Click here to begin plotting the course to make your golden years truly golden.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta owned shares of Lowe's and class B shares of Lennar. The Fool has a disclosure policy.