In a typical plan, employers match up to 3 percent of your salary, according to the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America. When you do sign up, the money you save will be automatically deposited into the plan before it's taxed, so less of your income will be taxed now. That saves you money, too.
That's what Rebecca Lamb has discovered. The 28-year-old Connecticut resident works in a nonprofit organization so she saves in a 403(b), which is similar to a 401(k) though they often don't allow company matching. These days, Lamb can't afford to plow huge sums into the plan, but she saves what she can. She also has a savings account that she opened when she got her first job at 15.
"I'm a disciplined person. I put in little amounts and save what I can. If it's $20, I put that in. If it's $100, I put $100. I've always done that," she says. "I'm just trying to save what I can right now. Hopefully, in years to come, I'd like to think I could put more way. But right now I'm just trying to save what I can because every little bit counts. I don't get caught up in the numbers."
3. No company retirement fund? Use a Roth insteadIf you aren't eligible for a retirement fund at work that gets you matching funds, sign up for the next best thing: a Roth IRA. You'll fund this with money that's already been taxed as part of your normal paycheck. But money in a Roth IRA withdrawn later is tax-free.
This year, you can put up to $4,000 in a Roth, but don't let that number scare you off if it seems far too rich for you today. Save what you can. It will add up. If you are able to sock away $4,000 a year into a Roth for 40 years, and if it earns 8 percent annually, you'll be a tax-free millionaire at retirement.
Toolbox for 20-somethings
To make sure you stick to saving, have a portion of your paycheck or payments from your bank account automatically deposited into the Roth each month or every few weeks.
4. Be aggressive with your investmentsMake sure to invest your money shrewdly. According to Hewitt, workers 18 to 25 typically invest 35 percent of their retirement savings in bonds. Yet bonds have historically returned 5.4 percent a year -- right around the risk-free rate and just ahead of inflation. That's practically sticking it in a jelly jar! Stocks, meanwhile, traditionally have grown at an annual clip of 10.4 percent, according to Ibbotson Associates, an asset allocation service that's part of investment ratings agency Morningstar.
Instead, play it aggressive, and put 90 percent of your investments in stocks, says Ellen Rinaldi, executive director of investment planning and research at mutual funds giant Vanguard. Stocks are interchangeably referred to as equities, since as a stockholder you own a slice of the company's value in the market, its equity.
"From an allocation viewpoint, someone in their 20s has a very long horizon, so they can handle the ups and downs of the market," says Rinaldi. "They can recover from a downturn. As a result, they should be heavily invested in equities."
You can hedge against the risk of loss by diversifying your investments. That's a fancy way of saying you want to own as many different types of stocks as possible, and it's a message that will hold true throughout your lifetime. That means steer clear of buying a single stock and look to mutual funds, a tradable vehicle made up of sometimes hundreds of different investments in widely varying quantities. They could be made up entirely of stocks, bonds, a combination of both or simply track the market by holding equal amounts of all shares in a given index, known as an index fund.
So-called lifestyle or life-cycle mutual funds make it especially easy for novice savers to buy a diversified array of stocks that are tailored to their age and retirement goals. That's because these funds are set up to automatically pick and choose the equities in the fund, and to rebalance those holdings over time, buying and selling shares in order to maintain the advertised mix of risk and return (or caution and predictability) by age bracket.
"Look for retirement funds targeted to your age bracket. They'll be much more aggressive for someone in their 20s," says Rinaldi. "If you just look for a balanced fund, you may wind up with 40 percent of your money in bonds, which is a typical mix for these funds."