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The Differences Between 401k and 403(b) Plans

There are many different retirement savings vehicles to choose from, but some of the most powerful and common vehicles are provided by an employer, such as 401k and 403(b) plans. The good news is that for most employees, there is very little practical difference between the two plan types. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of their key similarities and differences.

Both plans are tax-advantaged retirement vehicles offered to employees of various organizations. 403(b) plans, sometimes called tax-sheltered annuities (TSAs), are retirement plans offered by tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profits, including public school systems and certain ministries. Plan participants can include teachers, school administrators, professors, government employees, nurses, doctors, librarians, and clergy. In contrast, 401k plans have traditionally been offered only by private, for-profit companies, though this has started to change in recent years.

Contribution and Withdrawal Similarities

As I mentioned above, both 401k and 403(b) plans are tax-advantaged retirement vehicles offered by employers. There are a number of methods for funding, and the one most people are familiar with is deferral into the plan directly from your paycheck. For the 2020 calendar year, 401k and 403(b) plans have the following deferral limits:

  • Employees can contribute up to a maximum amount of $19,500
  • For workers ages 50 and older, the contribution limit increases by $6,500, for a maximum deferral of $26,000 per year.

Some 401k and 403(b) plans are designed to allow the employer to make contributions as well. These can take the form of employer lump sum contributions at various intervals or matching where the employer contributes a certain amount on top of your own deferral. The total maximum contribution limit across employee deferrals and employer contributions for 2020 is $57,000, or $63,500 if over age 50.

Both 401k and 403(b) plans offer tax-deferred growth, meaning contributions within the accounts are not taxed over time as they grow. All 401k and 403(b) plans offer a pre-tax deferral option where your contributions are made income tax-free, and employer contributions are always made on a pre-tax basis. Distributions of pre-tax funds from the account someday are taxed as ordinary income. Some plans also offer a Roth option where contributions are taxed as ordinary income when deferred into the plan, with future withdrawals that are totally tax-free as long as you follow all the rules. Check with the plan administrator to learn more about your contribution options.

401k and 403(b) plans share mostly similar rules around withdrawals. Generally, you’re not able to take a withdrawal from either plan type while still employed at the company until reaching age 59 ½, though there are certain IRS exceptions. If you do take a withdrawal before age 59 ½ and don’t qualify for one of the IRS exceptions, you could be assessed a 10% penalty in addition to income taxes. Some 401k and 403(b) plans offer a loan option where tax-free withdrawals can be made, though this is contingent on making payments back into the plan until the loan is paid off. Distributions are required in most cases from both plans once you reach age 72.

Due to the recently-passed CARES Act, some 401k and 403(b) plans allow participants to take an early distribution of up to $100,000 during 2020 for coronavirus-related hardship, regardless of age, without incurring the 10% early withdrawal penalty. The CARES Act gives you up to three years to redeposit withdrawn money instead of the regular 60 days. The taxes can be spread out over a three-year period, but if you restore the distributed funds within three years, you won’t owe tax until you take distributions in retirement. You may, however, have to file an amended tax return to get back any tax you paid before redepositing the funds into retirement savings. Not all plans offer these options, so check with the plan administrator to learn more. We recommend working with your tax and financial advisors before taking any early withdrawals out of your retirement accounts.

Read More: When Can You Withdraw From Your 401k or IRA Penalty Free?

Differences between 401k and 403(b) Plans

In addition to the different employee demographics for both retirement accounts, 401k and 403(b) plans can have varying costs and investment choices.

Depending on the investment options offered in your 401k or 403(b) plans, the fees and costs you end up paying may be low or high. In some cases, fees and administrative costs can be higher with some 403(b) plans since non-profit organizations and other qualifying entities may be smaller than private, for-profit companies. 403(b) plans are also more likely to have expensive mutual funds and annuities in their list of available investment options, whereas 401k plans may present more variety through lower-cost index funds and ETFs.

Some 403(b) plans offer an extra catch-up savings provision of $3,000 for longtime employees of the organization. This can turn into a significant extra savings option, so check with your plan administrator to learn if your plan allows this special treatment.

Suggested Next Steps for You

Both 401k and 403(b) plans are powerful savings vehicles, especially if the employer makes contributions. One is not necessarily better than the other, and most employees don’t have a choice of which plan to use, so the most important thing to focus on is diligent, disciplined savings over time to pursue your long-term financial goals.

  1. Look for the most inexpensive investment options available in each plan
  2. Work with a fiduciary financial advisor who can help advise you on your employer-sponsored retirement plan
  3. Use tools likePersonal Capital’s Fee Analyzer to get a deeper look at the hidden fees you could be paying.

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