Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants stood at $103,700 at the end of the first quarter of 2019, just shy of the all-time high level of $104,300 at the end of 2017. This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform. This represents an 8% increase from the average balance of $95,600 at the end of the fourth quarter of 2018. This came on the heels of a drop in the stock market for that quarter and for the full year in 2018.

They indicate that about 180,000 participants had a balance of $1 million, which is about 35 percent higher than at the end of 2018. What is their secret? Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint. Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $19,000 and $25,000 for those who are 50 or over.

If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you. Even if your plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues, this catch-up amount is not impacted. It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to a Fidelity study several years ago, the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent of salary. The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site, it is important to contribute as much as you can. If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start. Next year try to hit 4 percent or more. As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full match if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them. They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer. I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you. Everyone’s situation is different, be sure you make the best investing decisions for your situation.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan. The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments. By the time you are in your 30s or 40s you should consider a portfolio more tailored to your situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement. They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general. The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn and have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation. If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance. The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts, the points mentioned above still apply. In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job. Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan, make a decision. Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can hinder your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not, the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement. The steps outlined above can help you to do this. Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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