If you are like many Americans, you likely have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. This is the second article in a three-part series about the basics of 401k, 403b, and Defined Benefit Plans.
Retirement plans established under Section 403(b) of the Internal Revenue Code, commonly referred to as 403(b) plans or “tax-sheltered annuities,” have become a popular type of employer-sponsored retirement plan.
A 403(b) plan is a retirement savings plan, sponsored by a tax-exempt organization or public school, that offers significant tax benefits while helping you plan for the future. You contribute to the plan via payroll deduction, which can make it easier for you to save for retirement. One important feature of a 403(b) plan is your ability to make pre-tax contributions to the plan. Pre-tax means that your contributions are deducted from your pay and transferred to the 403(b) plan before federal (and most state) income taxes are calculated. This reduces your current taxable income — you don’t pay income taxes on the amount you contribute, or any investment gains on your contributions until you receive payments from the plan.
You may also be able to make Roth contributions to your 403(b) plan. Roth 403(b) contributions are made on an after-tax basis, just like Roth IRA contributions. Unlike pre-tax contributions to a 403(b) plan, there’s no up-front tax benefit — your contributions are deducted from your pay and transferred to the plan after taxes are calculated. But a distribution from your Roth 403(b) account is entirely free from federal income tax if the distribution is qualified. In general, a distribution is qualified only if it satisfies both of the following requirements:
Generally, you can contribute up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) to a 403(b) plan in 2020 (unless your plan imposes lower limits). If your plan permits, and you have 15 or more years of service, you may also be able to make special catch-up contributions to the plan, in addition to the age 50 catch-up contribution.
If your plan allows Roth 403(b) contributions, you can split your contribution between pre-tax and Roth contributions any way you wish.
While a 403(b) plan can make you wait up to a year to participate, many plans let you to begin contributing with your first paycheck. Some plans also provide for automatic enrollment. If you’ve been automatically enrolled, make sure to check that your default contribution rate and investments are appropriate for your circumstances.
Employers don’t have to contribute to 403(b) plans, but many will match all or part of your contributions. Try to contribute as much as necessary to get the maximum matching contribution from your employer. This is essentially free money that can help you pursue your retirement goals. Note that your plan may require up to six years of service before your employer matching contributions are fully vested (that is, owned by you), although most plans have a faster vesting schedule.
If you think you’ll be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, Roth 403(b) contributions may be more appealing, since you’ll effectively lock in today’s lower tax rates (and future withdrawals will generally be tax-free). However, if you think you’ll be in a lower tax bracket when you retire, pre-tax 403(b) contributions may be more appropriate because your contributions reduce your taxable income now. Your investment horizon and projected investment results are also important factors.
If you missed the first article in our three-part series about 401(k) plan basics, you can find it here.
Come back to learn about Defined Benefit Plans.