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Futureproof Your Finances:
A High School Guide to 401(k)s

APEF: Solving the Financial Illiteracy Crisis

Let's face it: retirement feels a million miles away when you're juggling homework, clubs, and figuring out what you want to be when you grow up. But trust me, the sooner you start thinking about your financial future, the better! And one powerful tool in your arsenal is the mighty 401(k).

So, what exactly is a 401(k)? Think of it as a secret stash for your future self: an investment account offered by many employers that allows you to contribute a portion of each paycheck automatically, and that money is invested in stocks and bonds for compound interest growth over time. Basically, it's a time capsule for your money, growing it and keeping it for when you retire and need it most.

How Does it Work?

  • Employee Contributions:

    • For employee 401(k) plans, contributions can be deducted directly from each paycheck before taxes and reduce your taxable income. It's important to note that there is usually a limit on how much you can contribute each year. 

  • Employer Contributions:

    • Many employers offer matching contributions, whereby they contribute a certain percentage based on how much you contribute to your 401(k). Think of it as free money that will boost your retirement savings!

  • Investment Options:

    • Your 401(k) provides you with various investment opportunities such as mutual funds, stocks, and bonds to give your money the potential for long-term growth.

  • Tax Benefits:

    • A key element of a 401(k) is its tax advantages. Your contributions are tax deductible and your investments grow tax-deferred until it comes time for withdrawal in retirement.

Why should you care about a 401(k) in high school? Two reasons: Time and compound interest. The earlier you start investing, the more time your money has to grow. It's like an acorn – it starts small, but with time and TLC, it grows into a giant oak tree. Plus, compound interest acts like a fertilizer, adding more and more money to your stash over time. 

Okay, I'm interested. How do I actually get a 401(k)? 

You usually need to be employed to have one, but you can still lay the groundwork now. Here are some tips:

  • Talk to your parents or guardians. Talk with your parents or guardians; they might have an employer-sponsored 401(k), which they can explain more fully to you. They could even open a custodial IRA for you (another cool savings account for the future!).

  • Explore personal finance! Understanding money will increase your confidence when managing it, so why not enroll in a financial literacy class, read some books or check out online resources? (Are you reading this as part of a financial literacy class? If so, you’re already ahead of the pack!)

  • Develop good money habits now. Save some of your allowance or earnings and avoid unnecessary spending. These skills will come in handy when you have a real paycheck.

Remember, the future is yours to shape, and your financial habits today will affect your tomorrow. A 401(k) isn't just an investment account; it's a commitment to your future self. So, start thinking ahead, learn all you can, and prepare to launch yourself towards a happy and secure retirement!

Bonus Tip: Check out these awesome resources for young investors:

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