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The Short Answer

Five (Easy) Steps to Setting Up a 401(k)

Cross this big to-do off your list by following these easy guidelines.

A version of this article originally published in January 2018.

Have you been meaning to enroll in your company's 401(k) but keep putting it off? You're not alone. Many people need a friendly nudge to start saving or increase their savings rate.

In Nobel-prize winning economist Richard Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi's groundbreaking paper Save More Tomorrow: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving, the authors explore the idea that many people need a nudge--first to get started (through auto enrollment) and then to increase their contribution rate (through auto escalation). 

Companies are increasingly taking this advice and automatically enrolling employees in defined contribution plans. If you've been automatically enrolled, take some time to review your plan elections and savings rate (but don't opt out!). If you aren't contributing to a 401(k) plan but you've been meaning to start, these five steps will (hopefully) make it easier to get started.

Step 1: See if your plan has automatic enrollment, and if so, make sure the contribution rate is high enough.
"Auto enrollment" means your employer is withholding some of your pretax salary and investing it in a 401(k) plan for you. Not surprisingly, auto enrollment helps increase employee participation in 401(k) plans. 

This Vanguard report, which looks at the accounts of 5 million retirement savers, found that auto enrollment did effectively increase participation rates, but the deferral (or contribution) rate tends to be lower among employees who are automatically enrolled than those who were voluntarily enrolled.

Make sure you're saving as much as you can. If your company has auto enrollment, don't just assume you're saving enough for retirement and call it a day. Check the salary-deferral percentage. Understand that a low contribution rate--3%-6% is common--isn't enough for most people. In fact, though 10% of one's salary was an oft-cited contribution goal in the past, many financial planners now say 15% is a better target.

Step 2: See if you can "auto escalate" your contributions.
Along with auto enrollment some plans offer "auto escalation," which means that your savings rate automatically increases--often 1 percentage point per year and maxing out around 15%. If your plan doesn't offer auto escalation, you can do it yourself: A great time to up your savings rate is when you get a raise. Go into your plan settings online and increase your savings rate beginning with the first paycheck following your raise. (If you never see the additional money in your paycheck, you won't miss it.) 

It makes sense to revisit your contribution rate annually to make sure it still makes sense given your current circumstances. And if you're eligible for catch-up contributions, know that you can begin making those extra contributions on Jan. 1 of the year in which you turn 50; you don't need to wait until your birthday.

Step 3: Find out whether your company offers a match, and contribute at least that much.
When deciding how much to contribute to a plan, determine whether your company provides a 401(k) match, and aim to contribute at least that much. For example, say your company will match up to 5% of your contribution. Contributing less than 5% means you're effectively turning down some free money that your employer would have given you you.

Step 4: Make portfolio maintenance easy by selecting a target-date fund.
If you've been automatically enrolled in your company's plan, your money is very likely invested in a balanced investment such as a target-date fund. A target-date fund is a mutual fund or collective investment trust made up of stocks, bonds, and cash, and that asset mix gets gradually more conservative as the investor's retirement date approaches. (For instance, a target-date fund for an investor retiring in or around 2060 will have more exposure to stock funds than a target-date fund intended for someone retiring in 2030.)

With so many investment options on a 401(k) plan menu, it is hard to know what to choose. That's why I recommend that investors who don't have the time or interest to do investment research and portfolio maintenance find a solid, low-cost target-date fund. (See our medalist target-date funds  here.)

Target-date funds make portfolio diversification easy. For one, they don't take on too much risk by being concentrated too heavily in any one area: An investment professional allocates the underlying asset classes with an eye toward asset correlation and optimizing the portfolio's risk/return trade-off. 

Further, the manager of a target-date fund also takes on the tasks of rebalancing the fund's allocation back to the target, and swapping the portfolio's exposure to risky assets for safer investments as retirement approaches. 

Target-date funds are truly set-it-and-forget-it investments. They are no doubt the easiest path to setting up a diversified portfolio and maintaining a sensible asset allocation for decades.

Step 5: Set up your beneficiary information (and keep it up to date). 
Make sure you set up your beneficiary designations. Ideally you would want to review these on a regular schedule, maybe annually. At the very least, make sure you revisit your named beneficiaries after major life events, such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or death of a loved one. (Also make sure your beneficiary information carries over if your employer changes plan administrators.) 

Bonus step: See how your plan rates.
Look up your plan on and see how it stacks up. If your plan receives a low rating, it's probably worthwhile to find out why and how the plan could improve. For instance, if your plan has high fees, reach out to your benefits coordinator and lobby for change. It'll mean more money in your pocket when you're in your golden years.