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5 Smart 401(k) Moves You Can Make in 2016

By Dan Caplinger - Jan 17, 2016 at 6:19AM

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Be sure to keep your retirement plan account working for you.

Image: Flickr user _e.t.

The New Year is a great time to revisit your financial planning, and because of the stock market's poor start in 2016, many retirement savers are taking a critical look at how they manage their investments. If you're fortunate enough to have coverage in a 401(k) plan at work, taking some simple steps at the beginning of the year can help you make the most of the long-term opportunities you have to save for retirement.

1. Max your match.
The absolutely most important thing you should do with your 401(k) is to set your contributions at least high enough to take full advantage of employer matching contributions. An employer match is free money to you, and most employers don't require a huge percentage contribution to make the most of the match. For instance, one typical method employers use is to match 50% of any contributions you make up to 6% of your salary. That works out to the equivalent of a 3% raise without any extra effort. Check with your employer on the specific provisions of your 401(k) match and then make any changes necessary to your contribution level to take full advantage of it.

2. Get invested.
Most 401(k) plans specify a default option if you fail to choose a certain investment mix when you sign up for your 401(k). What that default is varies from plan to plan, with some employers choosing cash-oriented accounts paying nearly no interest in today's market. Other employers choose balanced funds or target retirement funds with allocations to various types of assets set depending on your age. Regardless of what the default is, it might not be right for you, so take a look and move your 401(k) money to the fund options that you choose.

3. Be smart about your fund choices.
Many 401(k) plans offer a fairly wide menu of investment choices, but many participants don't understand that multiple funds often cover the same general areas. For instance, one common strategy employers use is to offer a low-cost index fund and a higher-cost actively managed fund that both own large-cap U.S. stocks. Unless the active fund has a demonstrated long-term ability not just to outperform the market but to do so by a wide enough margin to cover the higher expenses, it's smarter to go with the index fund. You can make exchanges inside a 401(k) with no tax consequences and typically no fees, so making a replacement is generally easy.

4. Check your beneficiaries.
After your death, 401(k) plans pass to the people you name in the beneficiary designation for your account. That's the case even if your will says something completely different, and it also typically applies despite changes in marital or family status. To make sure that your 401(k) money will still go where you want it to in the event of an unforeseen tragedy, making sure your beneficiary designations are up to date is a smart move to start the year.

5. Look at the catch-up provisions.
With an annual maximum of $18,000, most workers never come close to maxing out their contributions to a 401(k). But if you're one of the exceptions, bear in mind that once you reach age 50, you're entitled to an additional catch-up contribution of $6,000. That lets those in their 50s and older save as much as $24,000 on an annual basis, accelerating their ability to save for retirement at a time in their lives when many people are in the best possible position to save.

Your 401(k) is an important part of your financial planning, so take some time at the beginning of the year to make some of these moves with your retirement money. Doing so will put you in better financial shape down the road.

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.

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