Personal Finance

Three ways to become a 401(k) millionaire

How to be a 401(k) millionaire
How to be a 401(k) millionaire

It's that time of year: open enrollment season. That's when your employer sends you loads of information on benefits like your retirement plan for next year. As a millennial, preparing for retirement now may seem premature, since you've still got another 30-plus years in the workforce.

But start saving smartly now, and you could be a millionaire before you retire.

Fidelity studied the savings habits of more than 1,000 clients who earned less than $150,000 and had at least $1 million in their 401(k)s to see what worked for them. Here are some lessons they shared that can help you hit the $1 million milestone, no matter how much you're earning now.

Start small, aim big. You've got years until you retire, so you may be tempted to put off contributing to a retirement plan. But time is actually your biggest advantage if you're in your 20s or 30s. "Time is either going to work for you or against you. So get it working for you," said certified financial planner David Mendels of Creative Financial Concepts in New York City.

That means contributing to your 401(k), or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, if you have access to one. Or opening and contributing to an Individual Retirement Account (or IRA), if you don't.

Even if you can't max out your contributions — the limit for 2015 is $18,000 for 401(k)s and $5,500 for IRAs if you're under 50 — be sure to contribute at least enough to take advantage of any employer match. "A dollar more is more than a dollar less," said Mendels. And you can often arrange with your employer to have your contributions auto-increase annually as your salary (hopefully) grows.

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Aim for 15 percent or more. You may not be able to put aside that much of your annual income now. But a good goal is to increase your contributions to 15 to 20 percent of your pretax income, said Amy Jo Lauber, president of Lauber Financial Planning in West Seneca, New York. Fortunately, you don't have to contribute all of that yourself. Many employers offer some type of match. So for every dollar you contribute, your employer will add another 50 cents to a dollar, up to a certain point (often 3 to 6 percent of your income).

But a lot of employees are missing out on the match: A Financial Engines report published in May found that more than 1 million of the 4.4 million employees it tracked were missing out on at least part of their employer match.

Don't be scared of stocks. While stocks are considered riskier than bonds because of their volatility, Mendels said millennials have time to ride out the downturns — and even take advantage of them (by buying equities at discounted prices), "Don't' be afraid of market fluctuation," he said.

Some advisors suggest putting as much as 80 to 90 percent of your portfolio into stocks. But that may make some millennials uncomfortable. There's nothing wrong with investing a greater percentage of your money in more conservative assets like bonds, but they tend to generate lower yields.

Get informed about the different types of investment options you can have in your portfolio, ask questions, and consider your risk tolerance.

Preparing for retirement and accumulating a million sounds like a heavy task, but if you start early, contribute as much as possible and take advantage of any match money, you'll be well on your way.

"You have to control your money, you can't let your money control you," said Lauber. "When you get control of your money, you have the permission [and ability] to live the life you want."