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Don't leave free money on the table. Image: 401(K) 2013.

401(k) plans have inspired a lot of debate among policymakers and average American workers, with some seeing them as a poor substitute for full-blown company pensions, while others point to the ability for workers to direct their own investments as a positive. One of the key elements of 401(k) plans is the ability for employers to share profits with their employees, either through direct profit-sharing elements, or by adding an employer match to contributions that their workers make from their own paychecks.

It's easy to dismiss a 401(k) match as being just a small percentage of your overall salary, but over time, it can make a huge difference to the size of your eventual nest egg in retirement. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the 401(k) match, and see just how much it truly matters to your long-term financial security.

Why so many people ignore the 401(k) match
When you describe the typical matching contribution in a 401(k) plan, it's easy to see it as being insignificant. For instance, one common provision involves your employer matching half of the first 6% of your employee contributions to a 401(k) plan. That results in a maximum match of 3% of your salary, and if you're a typical American with average earnings of around $45,000, that means that, as long as you contribute at least $2,700 to your 401(k), your employer will kick in another $1,350 on your behalf.

Another reason why many workers don't pay much attention to the 401(k) match is that there are situations in which that money gets taken away from you. Specifically, many employers have vesting provisions that require an employee to work for the company for a minimum length of time before the matching contributions permanently belong to the employee. If you quit your job before that time passes, then you get to keep your own contributions to your 401(k), but you forfeit the employer's matching contributions. Relatively few employers allow matching contributions to vest immediately, and employers with so-called "cliff vesting" requirements can force you to work as long as three years before any of the matched funds vest.

Yet the 401(k) match does a couple of useful things. First, it gives you an incentive to go through the hassle of setting up your 401(k) contributions in the first place, and depending on the specifics of the matching program, it can encourage you to save more than you otherwise would. Second, over the long run, the money you get from employer matching typically gets invested the same way as your regular contributions, and over time, long-term growth can turn those modest match amounts into true wealth.

How your 401(k) match adds up
Year in and year out, a matching contribution might just look like a small incremental boost to your retirement savings. But thanks to the value of compound returns, you can end up getting a considerable portion of your eventual retirement nest egg from the money you get in your 401(k) match.

Consider a simple example in which you earn $45,000 per year, and save 6% of your salary in a 401(k). Your employer does a typical 50% match, adding 3% in matching contributions. Over the course of a 40-year career, assuming annual investment returns of around 8%, here's what happens to your 401(k) balance.

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As you can see, those tiny 401(k) matches end up being the difference between having a solid six-figure retirement account and being a retirement millionaire. In this case, what would have been a $700,000 nest egg without a 401(k) match turns out to give you almost $1.05 million when you add in the match.

That puts more money in your pocket that you can use to improve your lifetime during your retirement years. Using the popular 4% rule for determining sustainable retirement income, having a match essentially gives you an extra $14,000 to spend comfortably every year of your retirement without running a huge risk of ever running out of money.

Signing up for your 401(k) plan can seem like a pain, and even the prospect of a 401(k) match might not make the exercise seem worth it. When you see just how huge a difference matching contributions can make over time, though, it makes the few minutes you'll spend filling out forms seem much more worth it.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.