Money Monday: How to Rev Up Your Retirement Account

A major barrier to maximizing participation is the lack of education about how retirement plans work. Here are six tips to help you rev up your retirement plan.

Nearly half of all African-Americans in the U.S. have workplace retirement plans and about 8 in 10 who are eligible to contribute are doing so, yet many continue to contribute less than their employer match. Worse yet, a high percentage of African-Americans take out loans against their plans, thus minimizing their chances of being financially prepared for their golden years.

A new Prudential Research report, The African-American Financial Experience, states that a major barrier to maximizing participation is the lack of education about how these plans work. Given the plans' valuable tax breaks, it makes sense to invest the maximum if you can. Here are six tips to help you rev up your own retirement plan this year:

Get serious about your contributions. Try to contribute at least enough to qualify for your company's maximum matching contribution. Prudential’s research shows that about one-third of 401(k) participants don't contribute enough to qualify for the maximum matching contribution from their employer.

Ask questions about your “free money.” Your company’s HR department should be able to answer your retirement account questions and/or point you in the right direction. One particularly important point, for example, is your employer’s matching contribution. It may be 50 cents for every dollar you contribute (up to a predetermined maximum), a percentage of your salary or even a dollar amount. But it is really free money that you should be taking advantage of.

There will be a vesting period. The money that your employer contributes to your retirement account usually “vests” — or in plain language, the vesting period is the period of time before your shares are fully owned by you. The typical time frame is three to four years, but it may be different depending on the firm that you work for. Be sure to ask about the vesting period and realize that you’ll have to put the time in on the job in order to be eligible for the matching funds.

Know the limits. There are annual limits on your retirement contributions. According to the IRS’ new 2013 rules, if you are under 50 years old, you can contribute a maximum of $17,500 a year. If you're 50 or older, you can make an additional catch-up contribution of as much as $5,500, for a total of up to $22,500.

Choose your investments wisely. According to CNN Money’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement, employees can choose among various investment options within their 401(K) plans. And while your company may give you information about the funds, you'll need to figure out which ones are best for you. “Since you're bearing all the risk, it's important that you choose wisely,” CNN Money advises.

Educate yourself about retirement savings. You can use tools like Wells Fargo’s IRA Center to decide what type of retirement account you’d like to set up, review account options, compare traditional vs. Roth IRAs and calculate your IRA potential. You can also use the resource to consolidate retirement accounts, roll over your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plans or convert to a Roth IRA. Other good resources to check out include Bankrate’s retirement calculators and Wells Fargo’s Retirement Quick View.

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(Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images)

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