Saving for retirement is tough, but it's worth it. With few workers having access to pensions and Social Security only designed to replace around 40% of your income, there's a good chance you'll need to rely on your savings for the bulk of your income in retirement.

While the best way to save for retirement is to start early and invest consistently, there's one trick that can instantly double your savings with zero effort: earning matching 401(k) contributions.

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What are matching contributions?

If you have access to a 401(k) through your employer, you may be entitled to matching contributions. For every dollar you contribute to your account (up to a certain percentage of your salary), your employer will match it.

Not all 401(k)s offer this benefit, but if yours does, taking full advantage of it could significantly increase your savings with no effort on your part.

Among 401(k) plans that offer matching contributions, the average match is 3.5% of a worker's wages, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the median earnings among U.S. adults is around $52,000 per year.

If you're earning $52,000 per year and receiving a 3.5% match, that means your employer will contribute up to $1,820 per year to your 401(k). While that may not sound like much, it could add up to more than you might think.

How much can you earn from an employer match?

Matching contributions are essentially free money, and they can instantly double your retirement savings. Over time, they can add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Say, for example, you're receiving $1,820 per year in matching contributions. Let's also say that you're earning a modest 8% average annual return on your investments (which is just below the market's long-term average). Here's approximately how much those contributions can amount to over time:

Number of Years Amount in Savings
20 $83,000
25 $133,000
30 $207,000
35 $314,000
40 $473,000

Source: Author's calculations via

Keep in mind, too, that this is just considering the employer match. Once you factor in your own contributions as well, you'll have at least twice that much saved.

Also, because your wages will likely increase as you get older, that means your employer match could increase as well. Your match is normally a percentage of your salary, so the higher your earnings, the more you'll receive from your employer.

Maximizing your retirement savings

Oftentimes, the hardest part about saving for retirement is simply getting started.

If you're having a tough time finding money to save, start small. No amount is too little, so if you can only afford to contribute a few dollars per week to your 401(k), start there. With the employer match, you'll actually be investing double that amount, which is far better than saving nothing.

Gradually, then, you can start increasing your savings rate over time. Aim to eventually contribute enough to earn the full employer match so that you're receiving all the free money you're entitled to. If you can save even more than that, that's icing on the cake.

Preparing for retirement isn't easy, but boosting your savings even slightly can make your senior years far more comfortable. By taking full advantage of matching contributions, you can grow your nest egg more than you might think.