Defined contribution plans
Since their introduction in the early 1980s, defined contribution (DC) plans, which include 401(k)s, have all but taken over the retirement marketplace. Roughly 84 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer DC plans rather than traditional pensions.
The 401(k) plan is the most ubiquitous DC plan among employers of all sizes, while the similarly structured 403(b) plan is offered to employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations, and the 457(b) plan is most commonly available to state and local governments.
The contribution limit for each plan is $19,500 in 2020 ($26,000 for those age 50 and over).
Many DC plans offer a Roth version, in which you use after-tax dollars to contribute, but you can take the money out tax-free at retirement. “The Roth election makes sense if you expect your tax rate to be higher at retirement than it is at the time you’re making the contribution,” says Littell.
A 401(k) plan is a tax-advantaged plan that offers a way to save for retirement. An employee contributes to the plan with pre-tax wages, meaning contributions are not considered taxable income. The 401(k) plan allows these contributions to grow tax-free until they’re withdrawn at retirement. At retirement, distributions create a taxable gain, though withdrawals before age 59 ½ may be subject to taxes and additional penalties.
Pros: A 401(k) plan can be an easy way to save for retirement, because you can schedule the money to come out of your paycheck and be invested automatically. The money can be invested in a number of high-return investments such as stocks, and you won’t have to pay tax on the gains until you withdraw the funds. In addition, many employers offer you a match on contributions, giving you free money – and an automatic gain – just for saving.
Cons: One key disadvantage of 401(k) plans is that you may have to pay a penalty for accessing the money if you need it for an emergency. While many plans do allow you to take loans from your funds for qualified reasons, it’s not a guarantee that your employer’s fund will do that. Your investments are limited to the funds provided in your employer’s 401(k) program, so you may not be able to invest in what you want to.
What it means to you: A 401(k) plan is one of the best ways to save for retirement, and if you can get bonus “match” money from your employer, you can save even more quickly.
A 403(b) plan is much the same as a 401(k) plan, but it’s offered by public schools, charities and some churches, among others. The employee contributes pre-tax money to the plan, so contributions are not considered taxable income, and these funds can grow tax-free until retirement. At retirement, withdrawals create a taxable gain, and distributions before age 59 ½ may create additional taxes and penalties.
Pros: A 403(b) is an effective and popular way to save for retirement, and you can schedule the money to be automatically deducted from your paycheck, helping you to save more effectively. The money can be invested in a number of investments, including annuities or high-return assets such as stock funds, and you won’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw the money. Some employers may also offer you a matching contribution if you save money in a 403(b).
Cons: Like the 401(k), the money in a 403(b) plan can be difficult to access unless you have a qualified emergency. While you may still be able to access the money without an emergency, it may cost you additional penalties and taxes, though you can also take a loan from your 403(b). Another downside: you may not be able to invest in what you want, since your options are limited to the plan’s investment choices.
What it means to you: A 403(b) plan is one of the best ways for workers in certain sectors to save for retirement, especially if they can receive any matching funds.
A 457(b) plan is similar to a 401(k), but it’s available only for employees of state and local governments and some tax-exempt organizations. In this tax-advantaged plan, an employee can contribute to the plan with pre-tax wages, which means the income is not taxed. The 457(b) allows contributions to grow tax-free until retirement, and when the employee withdraws money, it becomes taxable.
Pros: A 457(b) plan can be an effective way to save for retirement, because of its tax advantages. The plan offers some special catch-up savings provisions for older workers that other plans don’t offer, as well. The 457(b) is considered a supplemental savings plan, and so withdrawals before age 59 ½ are not subject to the 10 percent penalty that 401(k) plans are.
Cons: The typical 457(b) plan does not offer an employer match, which makes it much less attractive than a 401(k) plan. Also, it’s even tougher to take an emergency withdrawal from a 457(b) plan than from a 401(k).
What it means to you: A 457(b) plan can be a good retirement plan, but it does offer some drawbacks, compared to other defined contributions plans. And by offering withdrawals before the typical retirement age of 59 ½ without an additional penalty, the 457(b) can be beneficial for retired public servants who may have a physical disability and need access to their money.