If you’ve just landed your first “real job” after graduation, or you’re still fresh in your career, retirement might be the last thing on your mind.
Whether or not you want to think about it, getting hired often comes with a golden opportunity to get on track for retirement. If your job comes with the benefit of an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, make the most of it! You don’t need to become an investing expert overnight. Start by following the three simple steps below.
1. Sign up! Or, just don’t opt out.
Each company will handle enrollment a little differently, and some will automatically sign up their employees. You should first determine how to set up a 401(k) with your company – and make sure you’re enrolled.
Planning for retirement is a long-lead project that benefits from a diverse investment strategy. At the start of your career, dividing up your paycheck into day-to-day expenses as well as investments can seem overwhelming or even impossible. Participation in an employer-sponsored plan (any plan really) gets the ball rolling. Plus, your 401(k) contributions are withdrawn from your paycheck and invested pre-tax. This allows you slightly more money to invest compared to investing with after-tax dollars.
2. Max out on contributions.
Try to contribute as much as you can. Keep in mind that typically the contribution level you choose will apply for one year. So if you need more of your paycheck to make ends meet, choose a level that fits your financial needs. If you don’t want to max out the contribution from your paycheck, you should strive to contribute up to the percentage that your employer will match, if they offer matching. Some companies match contributions up to a certain percentage, while others might make contributions with a profit-sharing feature. Either way, this is essentially free money that you should take advantage of to the fullest.
Employer matching is a wonderful thing, but job-hoppers beware. If you’re only employed with a company for a few years, you may lose out on all or some portion of your employer’s matching contributions when you leave. Company matching contributions “vest” over a period time. In short, this means that you earn matching contributions from your employer over time. It typically takes a few years to become fully vested, at which point you would own all matching contributions should you leave the company. However, policies will vary from company to company, so be sure to check into your specific employer’s plan and details.
3. Understand your investment options.
In order to grow your 401(k), you will need to invest it. Investment options vary based on what plan your employer offers. Typically, you may have the opportunity to invest your 401(k) in market funds, bonds, stocks, or some combination of these options. Each of these options have varying risk levels, so it is important to understand the risks before you choose investment options.
Your employer, or the company managing your 401(k) account, should provide additional resources on investment options for different levels of risk-tolerance. Exploring these materials is a great way to begin educating yourself on investment strategies which will serve you well later down the road towards retirement when you want to build wealth beyond your 401(k).
What other tips do you have for maximizing your 401(k)? We’d love to hear how you began building a retirement plan in the comments below!