How To Become A 401(k) Millionaire

Kyle Fanthorpe | May 14, 2019
Grandfather and his grandson having a pool day

Whether you’ve been investing for decades or are just starting out, learning to manage your money is essential. Reaching $1 million or more in your 401(k) has long been the gold standard for retirement. That might sound like a big number, but getting there is actually simpler than you might think. It just requires discipline, consistency, and a little financial acumen.

Obviously, starting early is ideal, but crossing that seven-figure mark can be achieved by overcoming your own personal finance challenges—no matter your age. Even if it’s not feasible for you, optimizing your investing strategies now can double or even triple your retirement account.

Read on for tips on how you can set yourself up to reach (or at least approach) that $1 million mark at any age.

What To Do In Your 20s

This decade of your life is a pivotal time for securing your future financial health. Learning to live frugally and spend consciously will set you up for success later in life. Understanding your cash flow is a big part of it. Consider your regular expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, transportation, debt repayment, entertainment, etc. and identify where cuts can be made.

If you’re lucky enough to have an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, don’t neglect to invest even a modest amount every paycheck. Even just 1% of your income will add up over time. If you don’t have access to a 401(k) through work, you can open an Individual Retirement Account to get started.

What To Do In Your 30s

This is a big decade for most people. Maybe you’re starting a family (if you haven’t already), or are considering buying a home. If you’re not investing yet, it’s important to start now since you still have plenty of working years ahead to build wealth. Keep in mind, the more of your debts (such as student loans and credit cards) you’ve paid down, the more you’ll have to invest.

Hopefully, at this point, you have access to a 401(k) plan to start stashing away—at the very least 4–5% of every paycheck (or more if you can afford to). This percentage should gradually increase over time. If your employer matches your contributions up to a certain percentage, you can easily make up for waiting until later to start saving.

What To Do In Your 40s

By now, you should be saving a significant portion of your income every month. If you haven’t, it may be a difficult starting point to catch up, especially if you’re paying to take care of a loved one or for college tuition. One solution is to maximize the amount you’re saving. A good rule of thumb is to have 3x your income saved at this point, and 4x by your mid-40s.

Investment wise, you should be maxing out your 401(k) contribution (currently $19,000) each year. You’ll want to put away 15–20% of each paycheck. If you’re making up for lost time, you might consider choosing a more aggressive investing portfolio. With retirement still 20 years or so away, any volatility in the stock market will likely recover.

What To Do In Your 50s

We’re not going to sugarcoat this—with retirement looming, your options are limited. It might be time for a few hard looks at what you can and can’t afford as far as sustainable spending. Revisiting your cash flow and looking at your spending level versus your income can help put into perspective your essential and superfluous expenses.

Fortunately, turning 50 unlocks the ability to make catch-up payments (an additional $6,000 dollars you can contribute above the $19,000 max). If you can afford to do so, this extra amount can help bridge some of your savings gap.

Other Considerations

Obviously, it’s critical to save for retirement as early as possible so that you can enjoy your golden years without worrying about your finances. Your 401(k) is a great vehicle to save, and $1 million may sound like a generous amount, but there are things you should keep in mind.

  • Inflation is an inevitable part of our economy. The weight of $1 million today isn’t necessarily what it will be in 10, 20, or even 30 years from now. Plan accordingly.
  • Your medical expenses tend to increase as you get older, taking a larger and larger cut of your income. This must be taken into consideration when you’re projecting your needs later in life.
  • You probably shouldn’t prioritize your savings at the expense of building an emergency fund. Everything you put into your 401(k) cannot be withdrawn before the age of at least 59 ½ without incurring a penalty. What about if something unexpected happens? You need to have at least a few month’s income set aside in case of unexpectedly losing your job or other troubles.
  • Losing a loved one isn’t something any of us want to think about, but not being financially prepared for such an occurrence can devastate your finances—especially if you’re reliant on their income. Life insurance is an affordable way to protect yourself from the unexpected in the event of a death.
  • You can work past 65. Even working just a few more years can dramatically brighten your financial prospects. Also, seeking part-time employment is another possibility that can increase your monthly income significantly—without committing to a 40-hour work week.

No matter your age, income level, or lifestyle, investing in a 401(k) is a great option for your retirement savings. However, with so many other possibilities to consider, determining where to start can seem overwhelming. Since everyone’s situation is different, it’s always a safe bet to consult a financial adviser who can offer their professional opinion on what’s best for you.

Interested in learning more about personal finance? Check out our post on how much money you should have saved at every age.


The information and content provided herein is for informational purposes only, and it is not to be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information or content made available here by third parties are solely those of their respective providers and not of Ethos which does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of such. You should consult with an attorney or other professional to determine what may be best for your individual needs. Ethos is not a fiduciary and does not make any guarantee, warranty, or other promise as to any results that may be obtained from using our content. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Ethos disclaims any and all liability in the event any information, commentary, analysis, opinions, advice and/or recommendations prove to be inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable, or result in any investment or other losses.