20 Smart 401(k) Moves You Can Make Right Now

By Markets Fool.com



Continue Reading Below

With pensions having mostly disappeared from the private sector, it's more important than ever for workers to save effectively for their own retirement. Company-sponsored 401(k) plans can help a lot with that. Here are 20 smart 401(k) moves you can make right now that can improve your financial future.

  1. Participate. The biggest mistake to make with a 401(k) plan is to not participate in it. Many plans feature automatic enrollment these days, but check to make sure you're enrolled and participating at your workplace.

  2. Maximize the match. A key benefit of 401(k) plans is that many feature employer matching contributions, such as when a company matches your contributions dollar-for-dollar up to 3% of your earnings. Always aim to contribute at least enough to get as many matching dollars as you can -- that's free money!

  3. Contribute aggressively. It's smart to contribute more than that, though. 401(k) plans have much more generous contribution limits than IRAs. For 2016, it's $18,000, plus another $6,000 for those 50 or older. The more you contribute, the more money will be working and growing for you.

  4. Increase your contribution over time. It's likely that you won't immediately be able to sock away $18,000 or $24,000 in your 401(k) each year, but whatever level you start at, aim to increase it regularly. Contributing 10% of your earnings? Try to make it 11% next year.

  5. Coordinate with other accounts. Of course, you likely have other investment accounts, so you should coordinate your 401(k) with them. For example, if you favor your IRA because it offers wider investment options than your 401(k), first contribute enough to the 401(k) to grab that free matching money. Then contribute your next dollars to your IRA, until you max that out. Then you can return to funding your 401(k).

  6. Don't settle for default settings. 401(k) plans typically feature default investment choices, and they tend to be conservative ones that won't serve you well if you're young and may not be great if you're older, either. Make sure that you decide how your 401(k) money will be invested.

  7. Consider target-date funds. You might consider parking some or much of your 401(k) money in target-date funds that offer convenient and automatic asset allocation and rebalancing. A 2030 fund, for example, will assume you plan to retire near 2030, and will divide your assets between stocks and bonds accordingly. These funds aren't perfect, though. They sometimes charge high fees and they all have different allocation formulas. Find one that suits you, or skip it.

  8. Consider index funds. Index funds are a terrific investment choice for 401(k) money, as long as they're low-fee ones focused on the broad market, such as the S&P 500 or the total U.S. or world stock market. They will likely outperform most managed stock mutual funds. There are bond index funds, too.

  9. Don't panic. Be an informed investor, understanding that your investments will experience some volatility. If the market takes a nosedive, as it occasionally will, don't panic and pull your money out or move it to "safer" low-growth investments. Be patient.

    Learn not to panic when the market gets volatile. Image source: Edvard Munch, The Scream, Wikimedia Commons.

  10. Rebalance. Rebalance your holdings every few years, to make sure that no investment has grown or shrunk so much that it's now a far bigger or smaller part of your portfolio than you'd like.

  11. Don't cash it out early. A common and potentially devastating mistake many people make is to cash out their 401(k) accounts when they leave a job. That's a bad idea because it robs your future of retirement dollars that will likely be needed. If you withdraw just $20,000 that might have remained invested for 20 years, averaging 8% annual growth, you miss out on more than $90,000 in future funds.

  12. Consider rolling it over into an IRA. When you leave a job, you might do well to rollover funds in your 401(k) into an IRA, where fees might be lower and investment options broader. Read up on the rules, though, lest you end up facing a fine for doing it wrong.

  13. Consider an annuity. Another option many have when closing out a 401(k) account is to convert that money into an annuity that will pay regular sums monthly in retirement. If the annuity is from a highly rated insurer, it's like buying almost-guaranteed income that can help you sleep better in your golden years.

  14. Assess fees. Be sure to find out what kinds of fees you're being charged in your 401(k). You can compare your employer's 401(k) with other companies' at BrightScope.com. If your fees seem steep, let your company know.

  15. Beware of penalties. Avoid being charged penalties, too -- for perhaps not following the rules when rolling over funds into an IRA or for taking money out of your account before you hit the minimum age to do so.

  16. Don't borrow from it. Don't borrow money from your 401(k) if you can in any way avoid it, as that's removing dollars that could be working and growing for you -- and that may never be repaid if you run into more trouble. (Not repaying such a loan can result in penalties and taxes, too.)

  17. Consider a Roth 401(k). Increasingly, many employers are offering the option of a Roth 401(k) plan, which accepts only taxed, not pre-tax contributions. Give it serious consideration, as it offers the chance to withdraw money from your account in retirement tax-free.

  18. Designate beneficiaries. Be sure you've designated beneficiaries for your account, so that the money goes to whomever you want it to, if you pass away.

  19. Get professional help. Don't be afraid to seek the guidance of a financial advisor. He or she may be able to help you set up your 401(k) (and other investments) in the most effective way.

  20. Keep learning. Finally, keep reading up on and learning about money management, investing, and retirement planning. The more you know, the better off you'll likely be.

The article 20 Smart 401(k) Moves You Can Make Right Now originally appeared on Fool.com.

Longtime Fool specialistSelena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article.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.