No early withdrawals. One of the biggest obstacles to reaching $1 million is taking money out of your 401(k) before retirement. Whenever you withdraw money from a 401(k) account, you will have to pay income tax on the amount withdrawn. Those who withdraw money before age 59½ are also generally charged a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. For example, if you withdraw $10,000 from your 401(k) plan at age 40 and are in the 25-percent tax bracket, you will forfeit $3,500 of that amount in taxes and penalties. Your money will grow faster if you avoid the early withdrawal penalty and defer tax on your savings until retirement. Avoid cashing out your 401(k) when you change jobs by rolling the money into an IRA or your new employer's 401(k) plan, or even leaving it in your old 401(k). An emergency fund outside of your retirement account will give you a financial cushion so that you don't have to dip into your retirement savings for unexpected expenses.
Balance safety with growth. Unless you have significant investment expertise, your 401(k) portfolio probably won't outperform the stock market every single year. Most people should aim to capture the average growth of the stock market. "Return does not mean trying to get some crazy 20 percent return each year because somebody told you that it's possible," says Morton. "Return means that there is going to be some type of average market return and that the longer you have your money invested, the closer you are going to get to that average return." Once you start to accumulate a significant account balance, you need to protect it with a reasonable investment strategy that includes a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash that is appropriate for your risk tolerance.
Boost savings once your kids are independent. Once your children are finished with college and support themselves, you will have a newfound ability to tuck money away for retirement. "Usually people don't have a lot of money when the children are in school. You usually find that the period of time in your 50s and your mid-60s is when you are really putting away a lot of money," says Harold Anderson, a certified financial planner and president of Parkshore Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif. "I think if each member of a couple is putting $22,500 in a 401(k) and investing it in a reasonable manner, they could probably have a pretty good shot at getting close to a million."