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5 simple ways to get smarter about your 401(k) in 2019

The definitive guide to retirement savings plans

It's never too early, or too late, to start getting your finances in order. And that starts with your retirement accounts.

Many Americans, especially younger millennials and members of Gen Z who may be just now entering the workforce, don't understand one of the most basic and popular retirement accounts: a 401(k).

"It sounds so foreign, so they don't inquire about it and they figure they'll get to it at some point," says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a financial adviser, board chair and president of the Charles Schwab Foundation. But that's a mistake.

If you have access to one, this account is a crucial workplace benefit. In fact, one of the biggest errors that people make when it comes to retirement is failing to take full advantage of tax-advantaged company-sponsored plans, such as 401(k)s, Schwab-Pomerantz says.

That can lead to a lot of uncertainty and stress about the future. Almost eight out of 10 Americans say they're concerned about not having enough money for retirement, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study.

But it's not hard to get on, or back on, track, especially if your job can help you out. Here are five easy ways to make smart 401(k) choices in 2019.

Enroll in a plan

Find out what your company offers to help you plan your retirement and, if you can, opt in. "At the very least, make sure you're signed up for your 401(k)," Schwab-Pomerantz says. Almost 60 percent of millennials have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to data analyzed by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

If you're unsure about your options, talk to your HR department or your manager. And if your company doesn't offer a 401(k) or you're self-employed, look into an individual retirement account (IRA). There are several options that may work for you.

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Automate your contributions

Once you've opened the account, the easiest way to make sure you're on track is to set up a regular deduction from your paycheck. "Make it totally automatic so you don't have to think about it and it doesn't feel as painful," she says.

Overall, between the share you put in and the share that your company matches, you should try to save 10 percent of your salary. If your company matches up to 5 percent, that means you only have to put it 5 percent to reach that suggested goal of 10 percent.

If that's not possible for you right now, make sure you're at least taking advantage of any employer matching that's offered. "Otherwise you're walking away from free money," Schwab-Pomerantz says.

Invest wisely

Next, make sure you're actually investing your savings the right way. Even though the markets have been volatile in recent months, Schwab-Pomerantz says younger savers should be at least partly invested in a diversified equities portfolio, or, in other words, a collection of stocks.

Having a major portion of your portfolio in equities is crucial, she says. "You hear a lot about people being fearful of risk and being involved in the stock market. But when you under-represent equities, it's just as much risk."

Make it totally automatic so you don't have to think about it and it doesn't feel as painful.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

That's because the money in a 401(k) is going to be invested for 40 years or more, so less safe but lower-interest investments like bonds may not grow the way you need them to. In fact, they may not end up beating inflation, so choosing only the most secure investments means you could actually lose money in the end.

You can also consider a target-date fund, suggests Ramit Sethi, author of "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," since that kind of a fund is a popular, low-cost, effective solution that does the balancing for you and largely takes the decision out of your hands.

Make sure to monitor the management and fund fees associated with your retirement accounts, too. Some investments like target-date funds typically have very low fees while others, like actively managed mutual funds, may cost you much more. Some of those funds may have higher returns, but some may not be worth the extra expense.

And those fees can have a big impact over time. NerdWallet found that paying just 1 percent in fees could cost a millennial over half a million dollars over 40 years. Tools like FeeX can help you analyze your account and may be able to recommend similar, less expensive investments.

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Increase your contributions regularly

If you already have a 401(k) account, now is a good time of year to double-check you're on track. A 401(k) is especially important because 62 percent of Americans say they expect this account to be their largest source of retirement income, according to Schwab's 2018 401(k) participant survey.

If you're not saving 10 percent of your income, consider at least bumping up your contribution level by 1 percent this year. "You will not notice the difference," Schwab-Pomerantz says, but the increase will go toward helping you build wealth.

Reassess and rebalance as needed

Now is also the time to consider rebalancing your portfolio. If your stock positions have gotten too high within a 401(k), for example, you can cut that back a bit and put more money elsewhere, like into bonds or cash. Or, again, you can opt for a target-date fund.

"Rebalancing a portfolio is actually the key ingredient to getting the best performance from your holdings," Schwab-Pomerantz says. This is what all the major pension funds do, and even the investing whizzes managing the huge endowments at elite universities like Stanford and Harvard.

"The idea is you don't want the stock market to determine your goals or risk tolerance," she says. "If your portfolio gets out of whack, you want to have it realigned to what your goals are."

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