Should I sign up for my 401(k)?

By Walter Updegrave, senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- Question: My employer offers a retirement savings plan. I'm turning 30 this year and I'm wondering whether to enroll in it. Do you think I should? --P.J., Boston, Mass.

Answer: Let me see. How should I put this? How about...Yes! Definitely! Without a doubt! Get on board now! Do it pronto! Sign up immediately!

Walter Updegrave is a senior editor with Money Magazine and is the author of "How to Retire Rich in a Totally Changed World: Why You're Not in Kansas Anymore" (Three Rivers Press 2005).

I think you get the idea.

One of the biggest reasons so many people find themselves heading into retirement with an undersized nest egg is that they don't start saving early enough and thus miss out on decades of compounded returns (tax-deferred compounding, by the way, in the case of 401(k)s and similar plans).

Indeed, retirees' regrets about not saving and planning sooner come through loud in clear in surveys recent and not so recent, suggesting it's an ongoing lament.

It's understandable, of course, that someone in his 20s or 30s -- or for that matter even older -- might not see saving for retirement as an immediate concern. After all, when retirement is 20, 30, 40 years off, it seems more like an abstraction than a reality. Something only old dudes need to worry about. Besides, there are so many other pressing financial issues early in your career, it's only natural that planning for a goal decades away would be postponed.

But take it from this 57-year-old who still remembers settling into to his little cubicle at a Philadelphia bank at his first job in 1974: the time passes very quickly. Before you know it, you're one of the old dudes for whom 401(k) balances and pensions and Social Security benefits are suddenly very pressing realities.

And make no mistake: the longer you put off saving, the harder it is to accumulate enough dough for you to maintain the standard of living you enjoyed during your career in retirement. If you have any doubt about that, I suggest you check out this column, which gives an example showing how the "price of procrastination" can run nearly a half a million dollars.

So what should you do to avoid becoming a retiree with regrets?

As I indicated so vehemently above, the first thing you should do is sign up for your company plan. Now.

For guidance on how much you ought to contribute, you can check out our What You Need To Save Calculator. Just plug in your age, salary and the amount, if any, you've already got saved and you'll get a rough estimate of the percentage of salary you should salt away each year. For example, this tool would recommend that someone your age making $40,000 a year with nada saved to date sock away 10% of salary.

If you can't manage that, do what you can and resolve to boost the percentage later. If you can put away more, go ahead, as doing so will give you a cushion in the event your savings plan is disrupted by layoffs and such during the course of your career. At the very least, try to contribute enough to take full advantage of any matching funds your employer offers.

As for investing the money you contribute, you can either assemble your own portfolio from the menu of choices in your plan or, if you're not up to that get help via choices like a managed account or target-date fund, if your plan offers them.

As your account balance begins to grow, you'll want to monitor your progress from year to year to assure that you're still on track toward a secure retirement. Many 401(k) and similar plans offer calculators and tools that will help you do that, but if yours doesn't, you can check out online calculators such as our Retirement Planner.

But it's all got to begin with you signing up for your workplace plan. Because if you don't, you run the risk of finding yourself late in your career staring at the balance of your retirement savings plan with the phrase "coulda, woulda, shoulda" running through your head. To top of page

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