How 401(K)s Work: A Beginner’s Guide

401(k) plans were created to help people save for retirement. That is, until a lot of companies started offering free money from their 401(k)s in the form of cash bonuses or stock options – which can be worth thousands or even millions! These “free” gifts aren’t really free and they will likely leave you worse off than if you had saved yourself. How did it happen? What are some mistakes that might have been made in this process? And what does all this mean for your future finances? Let’s get into it with our beginner’s guide to 401(K)s!.

401k calculators allow users to calculate how much money they will have in retirement based on the amount of their 401k contributions. The “401k calculator” is a tool that can be used to figure out what your retirement savings will be.

Vintage man and woman smiling and looking at each other.

You’re probably not thinking about retiring right now if you’re a young guy. It’s very understandable. It’s difficult to plan and think about something that’s 40 years away (perhaps many more–the conventional concept of retirement will almost certainly shift dramatically over the next several decades). Furthermore, many young men put off saving for retirement since the procedure intimidates them. They believe they lack the necessary understanding to get started.

We’ll look at some of the many retirement accounts available over the next several months, learn how they function, and consider their benefits and drawbacks. My objective is for you to have a basic grasp of these accounts by the conclusion of this course and feel secure enough to start saving for your retirement.

Why You Should Begin Saving For Retirement Right Now

Because when it comes to investing, time is your greatest friend. When you retire, the longer your money has to grow, the more money you’ll have. Let’s look at an example from the book Get a Financial Life to demonstrate the impact of time on your assets.

Assume you put $1,000 down each year from the age of 25 to 64 in a retirement account that yields 5% a year (stocks have historically returned roughly 8%, but we’ll be careful). You’ve put down a total of $39,000. You’ll have $126,840 by the time you reach 65. If you wait until you’re 35 to start saving, you’ll only have $69,760. If you had started 10 years sooner, your total would have been doubled. Yes, it’s been doubled.

Isn’t it pretty cool?

Here’s another incentive to start saving right now. You’ve certainly heard a lot about our country’s fiscal troubles if you’ve been watching the news recently. By the time a person in their 20s retires, many social services that many people depend on now may no longer exist or will be significantly reduced. You won’t have to worry about whether or not Social Security will be available when you’re old and decrepit if you start saving now. So you may go to town halls and rant about something else that irritates you someday.

Finally, putting money aside for retirement is a terrific method to turn on the Provider Switch, which is strongly ingrained in our masculine nature. A father has a plan for his family’s future.

What is the difference between a retirement account and a savings account?

With fewer and fewer employers providing pensions to retirees, the US government recognized a need to encourage Americans to save for retirement. Beginning in the 1980s, Congress enacted legislation to establish a range of tax-advantaged retirement accounts, including the 401(k), 403(b), IRAs, and Roth IRAs. There are others, but they are the most significant. Quick fact: Why are 401(k)s named 401(k)s in the first place? It gets its name from the IRS code section 401(k) that establishes this retirement account.


This alphabet soup of letters and figures might be overwhelming to a young guy just starting out in life. I remember not understanding what a retirement account was and how it operated when I was in college.

The distinction between a retirement account and investing is something I see a lot of young guys get mixed up about. Many people believe that a retirement account is a kind of investment. It’s a simple error to make. The way people speak about retirement savings and investing might make it seem like they’re the same thing. They aren’t, though.

Stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and index funds are examples of investments. A retirement account is more like a blank box where you may put your money. You start a retirement account and fill it with any assets you want–stocks, bonds, and index funds, for example. You won’t be taxed on the profits your investments produce while sitting in that retirement account every year because of specific tax regulations.

In The Bogleheads’ Guide to Retirement, I read a terrific comparison that clearly shows the distinction between retirement accounts and investing. Retirement accounts, according to the author, are like baggage, while investments are like clothing and socks. Similarly to how particular baggage and clothes have benefits and drawbacks depending on where you’re going, some retirement accounts and investments have benefits and drawbacks based on your financial objectives.

The most essential thing to remember is that your savings in retirement accounts grow tax-free. You’ll have more money to go on vacations and pamper your grandchildren if you have less money to pay Uncle Sam. Tax savings may occur when you deposit money into a retirement account or when you remove money from it, depending on the kind of account. I’ll get to it later.

TSPs, 401(k)s, and 403(b)s

Retirement accounts such as 401(k), 403(b), and TSPs are often opened with your employer. Private enterprises provide 401(k) plans, public school and non-profit workers get 403(b) plans, and federal government employees have Thrift Savings Plans (TSPs).

Because all three plans operate in much the same manner, we’ll focus on 401(k)s in this article.

Traditional 401(k) Tax Benefits

Keep in mind that the primary benefit of retirement funds is the tax savings. Here’s how you can save money with a typical 401(k). Every payday, your employer will withdraw a pre-determined amount from your income to purchase investments for your 401(k) retirement account. You won’t be taxed on the money you put into that account until you remove it when you retire. A pretax contribution is what it’s called.

Let’s look at an example to understand how this works. Assume you earn $50,000 per year at your employment and elect to save away $5,000 per year in your 401(k) for retirement (k). That $5,000 will be deposited into your account, but you will only be taxed on $45,000 at the end of the year. That $5,000 you placed in your account will grow tax-free for the next 40 years. The $5,000 will be taxed when you retire and start taking withdrawals from your account. Paying taxes later rather than sooner may bring more money in your pocket when you’re elderly and lazing about in jogging suits since your money grows untaxed for so many years.


Making Investment Decisions

When you join a 401(k), you’ll have to choose which investments to put into your retirement account. Your company will usually collaborate with an investment broker to put together a menu of options for you to pick from. Usually, they’re mutual funds. Unfortunately, you’re stuck with whatever menu your boss comes up with, and it’s usually fairly bad. However, I wouldn’t allow the lack of decent investment alternatives deter you from contributing to your company’s 401(k) (k). It’s preferable to invest in less-than-ideal funds than to not invest at all.

In terms of selecting money from the menu, what do you think you’ll do? It’s absolutely up to you to decide. Examine the prospectus, do some research, and choose a fund with a risk level that you are comfortable with. We’ll return to this topic in a later article to go through how to choose an investment in more depth.

Choosing the Appropriate Amount to Set Aside

You tell your employer how much of your earnings should go into your 401(k) (k). You have total control over the amount of money you put into your 401(k) (k). The majority of financial experts believe that you should set aside at least 10% of your income for retirement. The higher the percentage, the better, but 10% is an excellent starting point. It’s difficult to save money since every dollar you put into your 401(k) is a dollar you can’t spend or enjoy right now. Set up an automatic payment with each payday and then forget about it, in my opinion. After a time, you won’t even realize how much money you’ve saved.

Matching Employers

One of the major benefits of 401(k)s is this. Many companies may match a percentage of your contribution with a matching contribution up to a certain level. For example, if you put the first 5% of your income to your 401(k), your employer may match your contribution up to $1.50.

Let’s see how it works in practice. Let’s imagine you earn $50,000 per year and your employer promises to match $1 for every dollar you put into your 401(k) in the first 5% of your pay. You decide to put 10% of your income into your 401(k) plan (k). That’s $5,000 you put into your 401(k) out of your own money (k).

Here’s where your employer’s contribution comes in. Up to 5% of your pay, he’ll match your donation dollar for dollar. That implies your company will make a $2,500 contribution to your account. That’s $2,500 in free money and a 50% return on your $5,000 original investment.

Contribute at least the minimum amount required to obtain matching funds if your workplace provides 401(k) matching. However, the more the merrier.

Limitations on Contribution

The government has established restrictions on how much we may put into our 401(k) plans (k). They must have intended to offer individuals a tax reduction, but not one that was too large.

  • Employees under the age of 49 may contribute a maximum of $16,500 per year out of pocket. The maximum annual contribution from both the employee and the employer is $49,000.
  • The government permits workers over the age of 50 to contribute a little extra so that they may catch up on their savings as they prepare to retire. Employee contributions are capped at $22,000 per year. The maximum annual contribution from both the employee and the employer is $54,000.

Taking Money Out of Your 401(k) (k)

When you reach the age of 59 and 1/2 or 55 and have left your company, you may begin taking money from your 401(k) without penalty. You pay income tax on the money you’ve invested when you withdraw it (and the interest it has made).


If you withdraw before you reach the age of 59 and 1/2, you’ll face a 10% penalty on top of whatever regular income taxes you’ll have to pay. So, if you’re 40 and decide to take $10,000 out of your 401(k), you’ll have to pay a $1,000 penalty as well as income taxes on the $10,000. Basically, if you take money out of a 401(k) too soon, you’ll lose the tax benefits that come with it (k). Bottom line: don’t give up too soon.

Taking a Loan from Your 401(k) (k)

There is a method to obtain early access to your 401(k) funds without paying a penalty. You can really borrow money from your 401(k) (k). Your firm will choose how much you may borrow from your fund. You may often borrow up to half of the money you’ve put in (many firms won’t let you borrow from employer-matched funds). In most cases, you have five years to repay the debt. If you don’t return the loan on time, it turns to a withdrawal, and you’ll be responsible for the 10% penalty as well as any income taxes.

Make every effort to avoid using your 401(k) as a source of income (k). While it may be tempting to use your 401(k) as an emergency fund or to help pay for a down payment on a house, it should only be used as a last resort. You don’t want to take the chance of not being able to repay your loan on time, resulting in early withdrawal taxes and penalties.

Investing in Your 401(k) (k)

You have a few choices when it comes to what you may do with your 401(k) after you leave a workplace (k). You may just leave the money in the 401(k) plan at that workplace and let it grow (k). You may start a new 401(k) with them when you find a new job. If you quit and start many jobs, though, the number of 401(k)s you’ll have to handle would soon grow.

Financial experts advise rolling over your 401(k) to make managing your retirement easier (k). When you leave a job, you may take your 401(k) money with you by rolling it over into a rollover IRA, which is tax-free. The next time we speak about IRAs, the most essential thing to remember is that an IRA is a form of tax-free retirement plan. You may either retain your money in your rollover IRA, where it will continue to grow tax-free until you retire, or you can apply it to your new 401(k) investments (k).

The most important thing to remember about rollovers is that they allow you to move your retirement funds across accounts without sacrificing the tax advantages of your 401(k) (k).

Roth 401(k)s are a kind of 401(k) that allows you to

Some companies are now offering Roth 401(k)s. Instead of putting pre-tax money into your account, a Roth 401(k) allows you to put after-tax money into your account. You won’t receive the same tax savings as with a standard 401(k), but you won’t have to pay any income tax when you take money from your Roth 401(k) in retirement. There are a few more advantages to Roth-style retirement accounts, but I’ll go over them in more detail in our IRA piece. Keep an eye out for it.


Part 2: IRAs may be found here.

Is there anything I’m missing? What’s your 401(k) experience been like? Do you have any suggestions for young males who are just starting off with their retirement accounts? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.



401(k) plans are retirement savings plans offered by employers. 401(k)s allow employees to defer a portion of their salary into a retirement account. Employees can then invest the money in the plan, and it grows tax-free until they retire. Reference: what is 401k plan.

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