4. Max Out on the Company Match
In a 2008 survey of nearly a million 401(k) participants, the investment advisory firm Financial Engines found that 33 percent don't contribute enough to their company plan to collect the maximum employer matching contribution. That's literally turning down free money. The way a match works is that if you contribute to your retirement account, your employer will throw in some money, too. One common system is for an employer to give 50 cents for every dollar the employee contributes to her 401(k), up to a specified limit, such as 6 percent of a salary or a certain dollar amount per year. Under those terms, if the employee contributed $3,000, the employer would kick in another $1,500. Hello! That's a guaranteed 50 percent return on your investment. And $3,000 spread out over 26 pay periods is only $115 every two weeks. That's a small step toward a big goal.
If your company doesn't provide a match—or has opted to suspend its match during the recession—you may still qualify for a Roth IRA. I recommend funding the IRA completely before you contribute to an unmatched 401(k). Without the match, a 401(k) is still a good deal, but a Roth IRA is even better. Details follow in the next small step.
5. Invest in a Roth IRA
I love the Roth IRA. Tax-free income in retirement is a truly great deal. That's because income tax rates are likely to rise given all the big federal deficits that will need to be repaid. (And remember: Withdrawals from a traditional IRA or 401(k) will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.) If you have modified adjusted gross income (AGI) below $105,000 this year ($166,000 for married couples filing a joint return), you can invest the maximum $5,000 in an IRA (or $6,000 if you are 50 or older). Above those income limits, you can make smaller contributions; you lose eligibility if you have a modified AGI of $120,000 or more, or are part of a married couple with a modified AGI of $176,000 or above.
I know $5,000 or $6,000 is a big deal. And I promised small steps. So break that $5,000 into 12 monthly chunks. Does $416 sound more doable? If it's still too much, save what you can. No rule says it has to be $5,000. You can invest as little as $600 a year at some fund companies through an auto-investing plan, or save until you meet the $1,000 to $1,500 minimum initial investment most mutual funds require.
6. Subtract Your Age from 100; Put That Much in Stocks
Now we need to talk about asset allocation. For all your long-term investments, such as retirement accounts that you won't touch for at least ten years, you need a mix of stocks and bonds. Stocks offer the best shot at inflation-beating gains. But stocks don't always go up. That's where bonds come into play: They have less upside potential, but they also do not pack the same risk. So what's your Midas mix of stocks and bonds? Subtract your age from 100 and invest that percentage of your retirement savings in stocks. The rest belongs in bonds. For the stock portion, put 70 percent in U.S. stocks and the rest in international funds. As for the bonds: You should definitely have some lower-risk investments in your 401(k), but rather than invest in a bond fund, look for a GIC or Stable Value fund, which offers a guaranteed return. For your IRA accounts, I am all for owning individual bonds you can hold to maturity instead of bond funds, which are subject to trading and carry more risk.