When it comes to saving for retirement, it’s important to understand your options. Figuring out which type of account to use is a big deal. For some workers, understanding the difference between a 401(k) and a 403(b) is important.
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In many ways, a 403(b) is like a 401(k). In fact, the contribution limits ($17,500 for 2013) are the same for both plans. The biggest difference between a 401(k) and a 403(b) is who these plans are meant for:
With a 403(b), you can contribute up to the limit to a tax-advantaged account. In many cases, working for a non-profit or a government organization doesn’t exempt you from paying taxes. A tax-advantaged plan, where your money grows tax-deferred or tax-free, can provide you with benefits that add to the efficiency of your investments over time.
A 403(b) isn’t a pension, either. It’s a defined contribution plan, which means that what you get in the end depends on how much you put in on your own — and how well your investments do over time. A pension is a defined benefit plan, which means that your payout during retirement depends on a formula (usually including years worked and salary at retirement), and is set.
Like a 401(k), you contribute your money prior to paying taxes. This means that you get a tax deduction for contributing now. Later, when you withdraw money from your account, you pay taxes on the contributions and the earnings. The 403(b) also comes with a Roth option, so if you are willing to make your contributions with after-tax dollars, your money will grow tax-free, and you won’t have to pay taxes on any of it when you withdraw it from your account during retirement.
There are some instances when some of your 403b options are limited, though. Like all plans administered by an employer, some are better than others. You might not have access to low-cost investment choices, or you might have limited choices when it comes to the types of investments you can make. If you qualify, you might be able to contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA so that you can choose your own investments, and find lower-cost alternatives. You can also talk with your employer about offering other investment choices. Make sure you know what fees are being charged so that you can make a more informed decision.
Realize that access to a 403b might be affected by the hours you work, and there might be vesting requirements.
It’s important to understand the differences between a Roth 403(b) and a Roth IRA. Even though these are both Roth funds, and your after-tax contributions to both grow tax-free, the rules governing how you withdraw your money, and when, are different.
With a Roth 403(b), you follow the same rules as with a 401(k). You can only begin accessing your money without penalty when you reach age 59 1/2, or if you meet other very stringent conditions. This is different from a Roth IRA, in which you can withdraw contributions at anytime without penalty (withdrawing earnings is another matter with the Roth IRA). Your Roth 403(b), like any version of a 401(k), is also subject to Required Minimum Distributions once you reach age 70 1/2, while a Roth IRA is not.
If you work for a government entity, or if you work for a non-profit with tax-exempt status, there is a good chance that you can save for retirement with a 403(b). Ask your employer about your retirement account options, and make sure you tax advantage of the ability to save for retirement.