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What You Need to Know About the Easiest Way to Save for Retirement

If you have a 401(k), chances are you’ve been given the option to invest in a “target-date” fund. This is a balanced mutual fund that gradually changes its investment mix depending on how close you are to retirement. It’s designed to hold a higher percentage of riskier, growth-oriented investments like stocks when you’re young, and increase the proportion of more conservative investments, such as cash and bonds, as you age.

Many brokerage firms offer target-date funds, which come with names like Fidelity Freedom 2050 or Lifepath Index 2045. The idea is to pick one associated with the year you expect to retire.

There are advantages to these funds, especially for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time managing their investments. But there are some drawbacks, too.

Pros

Let’s start with the upsides.

1. They automatically rebalance

Target-date funds are designed to build wealth while you’re working, and protect it as you approach retirement. They accomplish this by gradually and automatically changing the investment mix over time, which is referred to as rebalancing. Because it’s not particularly easy for the average investor to make these kinds of changes on their own, a target-date fund offers the convenience of “set it and forget it,” saving you time and extra work.

2. They are easy to select

Picking which mutual fund is right for you is tricky, because there are often so many choices. There are funds for specific industries, funds for growth, and others for income — it can be overwhelming. When choosing which target-date fund is right for you, though, all you need to do is pick one that lines up best with the year you expect to retire. So if you are now 30 years old and plan to retire at age 63, you would pick a fund labeled with the year 2050.

3. They offer diversification

Most target-date funds are essentially “funds of funds.” In other words, they are comprised of a mix of mutual funds, which are…

7 Traps to Avoid With Your 401(k)

More and more Americans are choosing an employer-sponsored 401(k) as their preferred way to build up their nest eggs. As of 2014, an estimated 52 million Americans were participating in a 401(k)-type plan.

When used properly, a 401(k) can be a powerful tool to save for your retirement years, but there are a couple of crucial pitfalls that you have to watch out for. From high fees to limited investing choices, here is a list of potential downsides to 401(k) plans — and how to work around them.

1. Waiting to set up your 401(k)

Depending on the applicable rules from your employer-sponsored 401(k), you may be eligible to enroll in the plan within one to 12 months from your start date. If your eligibility kicks in around December, you may think that it’s fine to wait until the next year to set up your retirement account.

This is a big mistake for two main reasons.

First, contributing to your 401(k) with pretax dollars allows you to effectively reduce your taxable income for the current year. In 2017, you can contribute up to $18,000 ($24,000 if age 50 or over) to your 401(k), so you can considerably reduce your tax liability. For example, if you were to contribute $3,000 between your last two paychecks in December, you would reduce your taxable income by $3,000. Waiting until next year to start your 401(k) contribution would mean missing out on a lower taxable income!

Second, your employer can still contribute to your 401(k) next year and make that contribution count for the current year, as long as your plan was set up by December 31 of the current year. Your employer contributions have to be in before Tax Day or the date that you file your federal taxes, whichever is earlier.

How to work around it

If you meet the requirements to participate in your employer-sponsored 401(k) toward the end of the year, make sure to set up your account by December 31st. That way, you’ll be ready to reduce your taxable income for the current year through your own contributions and those from your employer before their applicable deadline (December 31 and Tax Day or date of tax filing (whichever is earlier), respectively).

2. Forgetting to update contributions

When you set up your 401(k), you have to choose a percentage that will be deducted from every paycheck and put into your plan. It’s not uncommon that plan holders set that contribution percentage and forget it. As your life situation changes, such as when you get a major salary boost, marry, or have your first child, you’ll find that your contributions may be too big or too small. (See also: 5 Times It’s Okay to Delay Retirement Savings)

How to work around it

To keep a contribution level that is appropriate to your unique financial situation, revisit your percentage contribution every year and whenever you have a major life change. Don’t forget to also check whether or not you elected an annual increase option — a percentage by which your contribution is increased automatically each year — and adjust it as necessary.

3. Missing out on maximum employer match

Talking about contributions, don’t forget that your employer may contribute to your plan as well. In a survey of 360 employers, 42 percent of respondents matched employee contributions dollar-for-dollar, and 56 percent of them only required employees to contribute at least 6 percent from paychecks…