For most people retiring in the future, a 401k Plan will be the financial key to retirement. Here are some tips to help you ensure that you're getting the most out of your plan.

Never miss the match

If you are not contributing enough to get the employer match in your 401k today, stop reading now and call your HR department to start contributing at least the minimum required for the full company match today. Never pass up free money!

Contribute more than you'd like

Retirement for most people will last a long time, perhaps longer than you'd like. To be prepared, you've got to contribute more than you'd like to a 401K. With the help of a financial advisor - your employer should give you access to one - you can determine how much you need to be saving each month.

Money saved today is worth more than money saved tomorrow

Every day you wait to contribute to your 401k is a day that you are giving up the investment returns on the savings. Those who plan ahead will spend money they earned on the money they saved; those who fail to plan will have only their own money to spend - and painfully little of that.

Be consistent

Everyone encounters problems from time to time that put pressure on the budget. Do all you can to treat your retirement savings as too sacred to be used for solving typical problems. Don't cut back on your contribution one month or one quarter with plans to contribute extra later. You won't likely ever make it up. Be disciplined year after year.

Include both stock and bond funds

As you manage your investments in your 401k, be sure to include funds that invest in stocks and bonds. Investing in five to seven different over the long haul is generally wiser than investing in just one or two. Be thoughtful about asset allocation among stocks, bonds and cash. For retirement, generally you'll want most of your money in stocks and bonds and just a bit in cash. Before your 50th birthday, you may not need to maintain any cash -keep it all in stocks and bonds, which earn more on average.

Educate yourself

If you're not a financial expert today, it is unlikely that you'll be an expert tomorrow. If you consistently attend employee education meetings about the 401k and read the business pages in the newspaper, you'll become knowledgeable enough to make better decisions. The sooner, the better.

Be patient

When you start contributing to your 401k at $100 per paycheck, it takes a while for that to become $1,000; longer still to become $10,000 and $100,000. If you consistently contribute 10 percent of your income for your entire career, you could accumulate the better part of $1 million. Be patient. It takes time.

By following these simple guidelines, you'll be much better prepared for retirement. Retirement takes a lot of money; those who plan well will have what they need.

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