This year has been difficult for everyone, and millions of people have experienced financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 36% of Americans who save consistently say they're saving less due to the pandemic, according to a survey from Pew Research Group, and one-third say they've had to tap their retirement savings to pay their bills.

If you haven't saved as much as you had planned to this year (or if you were forced to withdraw some of your retirement savings), you still have time to catch up. By taking advantage of these three effortless ways to supercharge your savings in 2021, you can ensure your retirement plans stay on track.

Older couple smiling while sitting on a boat.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Maximize employer matching contributions

Matching 401(k) contributions are essentially free money, so it's wise to take full advantage of them. By simply saving enough to earn the full match, you could potentially boost your savings by thousands of dollars per year.

For example, the average 401(k) match is 3.5% of a worker's salary, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Say you're earning $50,000 per year and your employer will match 3.5% of those wages, or $1,750 per year. By investing that $1,750 and earning an 8% annual rate of return, those matching contributions would add up to nearly $200,000 over 30 years -- and that's not even including your own savings.

Even if you don't have much to save, try your best to max out your employer match. These contributions can potentially double your savings, so every little bit you're able to save can make a significant difference.

2. Make sure you're investing aggressively enough

The stock market has experienced an unprecedented level of volatility this year, and some investors may be cautious about continuing to invest. However, while it may be tempting to "hide your money under your mattress," investing in stocks is one of the most effective ways to see serious returns.

Conservative investments like bonds may seem safer, but their low rates of return mean your investments will grow at a dismal pace. Despite volatility, the S&P 500 has experienced average returns of around 10% per year since its inception. Although investing in the stock market can seem risky, those higher returns make it much easier to save a substantial amount.

For instance, say you have $400 per month to invest, and you have three options: Invest more aggressively in stocks and earn an 8% annual return; invest more conservatively in bonds and earn a 5% annual return; or avoid the stock market altogether and put your money in a savings account earning 1% annual interest. Here's approximately how much your savings would grow over time in each of these scenarios:

Number of Years Total Savings Earning an 8% Annual Return Total Savings Earning a 5% Annual Return Total Savings Earning a 1% Annual Return
10 $69,500 $60,400 $50,200
20 $219,700 $158,700 $105,700
30 $543,800 $318,900 $167,000
40 $1,243,500 $579,800 $234,700

Source: Author's calculations.

Keep in mind that it's still wise to invest carefully in stocks. Be sure to diversify your portfolio and do your research to make sure you're putting your money behind solid investments. And if you're close to retirement, you may want to invest more conservatively to protect your savings from potential market downturns. But if you still have plenty of time left to save, investing more aggressively can be a relatively easy way to help your savings grow faster.

3. Set up automatic retirement fund contributions

When you already have loads of other financial responsibilities on your plate, it can be tough to remember to set aside some money for retirement. But by putting your savings on autopilot, you will never need to remind yourself to save.

If you're saving in a 401(k), many plans allow you to contribute a portion of each paycheck directly to your retirement fund. When the money never hits your bank account, it's easier to save it before you get the chance to spend it. If you have an individual retirement account (IRA), you may be able to set up automatic transfers from your bank account to your retirement fund each week, month, or however often you choose.

By thinking of retirement contributions as just another bill you have to pay, you're more likely to save consistently. And when you save consistently, it's much easier to build a healthy nest egg.

Saving money can be tough, but it doesn't have to be. By taking advantage of these simple ways to boost your savings, you can pad your retirement fund with next to no effort on your part.