Subscribe for 99¢
The Vast Majority of Workers Aren't Making the Most of Their 401(k)

Your 401(k) makes saving for retirement as painless as possible. You can transfer a portion of each paycheck straight to your retirement account, and if your employer offers matching contributions, you can even earn free money simply by saving.

But 401(k) plans can also be confusing. With so much jargon involved in the investing process, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to invest your money and ensure you're doing everything you can to protect your savings over the long term.

Does that mean you should hire a financial advisor to walk you through your retirement account? Or should you just wing it and hope everything will work itself out? You may actually have a third option -- and very few workers take advantage of it.

Image source: Getty Images

When DIY isn't the right retirement approach

Roughly two-thirds of 401(k) participants have access to online advice through their plan that can help workers choose the best investments for their portfolios, a study from Vanguard found. Despite so many people having this free tool at their fingertips, only 6% of workers have actually accessed it.

Furthermore, 57% of workers are offered managed account advice through their 401(k), which includes professional investment management and customized retirement savings projections. Yet only 8% of workers take advantage of this service, according to Vanguard.

Why don't more people use these services to make the most of their 401(k)? It's likely because most people are unaware they exist. Only around three-quarters of employees who are eligible to contribute to their 401(k) actually do so, the Vanguard report noted, and 36% of accounts have balances of less than $10,000.

So if many workers either aren't participating in their 401(k) or don't have much saved, they may not think to look for advice about how to manage their money. But if you're struggling to get started saving, that's the best time to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.

Knowledge is power in the retirement saving game

When it comes to preparing for retirement, you can never learn too much -- because the more you know, the fewer surprises you'll face down the road. But even if you think you know how to skillfully manage your money, there's always more to learn.

Around three-quarters of U.S. adults failed a retirement income literacy quiz, according to a report from the American College of Financial Services. Yet what's more worrisome is that nearly two-thirds of those who took the quiz claim to be highly knowledgeable about financial and retirement topics. So it seems most people don't know quite as much as they think they do.

Sometimes, what you don't know won't hurt you. That's not the case with retirement planning, however, because one seemingly minor mistake could cause long-term damage. For example, say you decide to invest most of your money in conservative funds earning average returns of around 2% to 3% per year. By playing it safe, you think, you're more likely to see your money grow in the long run. But if you're only earning 2% returns on your investments, your savings may not even keep up with inflation -- meaning your money could actually be losing value over time. By the time you realize the mistake, you may have missed out on years of valuable time to save.

Big life changes can also be tough to navigate if you're planning retirement on your own. Getting married, bringing home a new baby, or helping your children pay for college can affect your finances, and getting advice from an expert can ensure you're still on track to retire.

Not all 401(k) plans will offer advice this detailed and personalized, but you'll never know unless you do some research to find out exactly what tools and resources are available to you. Roughly two-thirds of Americans say they feel more confident about how much to save for retirement when they work with a finance professional, according to a survey from Northwestern Mutual, so taking advantage of expert advice can help you make wise long-term decisions.

If you have access to online advice and investment help through your 401(k), it's smart to utilize those services as much as possible. You don't know what you don't know, and when it comes to something as important as retirement planning, you can never get too much information.

The $16,728 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook

If you're like most Americans, you're a few years (or more) behind on your retirement savings. But a handful of little-known "Social Security secrets" could help ensure a boost in your retirement income. For example: one easy trick could pay you as much as $16,728 more... each year! Once you learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits, we think you could retire confidently with the peace of mind we're all after. Simply click here to discover how to learn more about these strategies.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Business Briefing e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.