A Third of Americans Can't Answer This Simple Retirement Question

Katie Brockman, The Motley Fool

Retirement can be a tricky subject, and there are so many questions to ask yourself as you're drafting your retirement plans. How much should you save? How will Social Security benefits factor into your retirement budget? Are you taking healthcare costs into account?

For many people, though, one of the most important questions is this: where should you put your money?

Most people choose to invest their retirement savings in a 401(k) or IRA, but not everyone knows whether they even have access to one of these accounts. In fact, nearly a third of Americans said they were unsure whether their employer offered a retirement savings account such as a 401(k), according to a survey from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in partnership with Morning Consult.

A 401(k) is a powerful retirement tool, and if you have access to one but aren't taking advantage of it, you could be missing out on some serious savings.

Confused man with question marks above his head

Image source: Getty Images

Why the 401(k) is so powerful

Both 401(k)s and IRAs have their advantages, but 401(k)s, in particular, offer a few key benefits. First, your employer may offer matching contributions -- which is essentially free money. Typically employers that offer this perk will match part or all of an employee's 401(k) contributions up to 3% to 6% of his or her salary. So, for instance, if you earn $50,000 per year and your employer will match 100% of contributions up to 3% of your salary, that's $1,500 per year you can receive from your employer simply by stashing money in your 401(k).

That may not sound like winning the lottery, but matching contributions can potentially double your savings, making it easier to reach your retirement goals.

Another key perk of 401(k)s is higher contribution limits. With an IRA, you're limited to saving a maximum of $6,000 per year, according to the IRS's 2019 guidelines. The contribution limit for 401(k)s, however, is $19,000 per year. Will most people contribute the full $19,000 every year? Probably not. But if you decide you want to kick your savings into high gear, you have the ability to save more with a 401(k). And those nearing retirement age can contribute even more -- workers age 50 and over can contribute an additional $6,000 per year to their 401(k).

You may not be able to max out your 401(k), but there are still ways to ensure you're making the most of it.

Taking full advantage of your retirement resources

Even if you don't have much to save, if your employer offers matching contributions, do everything you can to earn the full match -- anything less and you're leaving money on the table. Contributing an additional $50 or so every month may not seem like it would make much of a difference, but if your employer is matching that money, it can amount to significant savings over time.

For instance, say you're currently contributing $1,200 per year to your 401(k), and your employer will match your contributions up to $1,500 per year. If you continue saving $1,200 each year (and receiving an additional $1,200 per year from your employer), you'd have around $227,000 saved after 30 years, assuming a 7% annual rate of return on your investments. But if you upped your yearly contributions to $1,500 to earn the full match, you'd have around $283,000 saved. In other words, contributing an extra $25 per month on your end could result in an extra $56,000 over time.

If you're struggling to find money to put toward retirement, you might try having part of your paycheck automatically transferred to your 401(k). When you don't even see that money in your bank account in the first place, it's easier to avoid spending it before you can save it.

Don't forget to update your contributions as your income increases, too. Whether you earn a raise or snag a promotion, your retirement contributions should increase as well. Sometimes it's easier to save a percentage of your income rather than a set amount every month or year. When your goal is to save, say, 10% of your paycheck, your savings will automatically get a boost when your paychecks get bigger.

Your 401(k) may still be confusing, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Sixty-one percent of companies offer one-on-one financial guidance, according to a survey from Alight Solutions, and 60% offer online counseling to help answer any questions. Talk to your human resources representative to see if your organization provides any retirement planning assistance. You don't (and shouldn't!) have to plan for retirement entirely on your own, and learning as much as you can about the resources you have available is the best way to ensure you're on the right track.

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