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Retirement Plan Contribution Limits for 2014

United Way tax prep volunteers help hard-worki...

United Way tax prep volunteers help hard-working families avoid tax prep fees (Photo credit: United Way of Greater Cincinnati)

The IRS recently published the new contribution limits for various retirement plans for 2014.  These limits are indexed to inflation, and as such sometimes they do not increase much year over year, and sometimes they don’t increase at all. This year we saw virtually no increases for most all contribution amounts, but as usual the income limits increased for most types of account.

IRAs

The annual contribution limit for IRAs (both traditional and Roth) remains at $5,500 for 2014.  The “catch up” contribution amount, for folks age 50 or over, also remains at $1,000.

The income limits for traditional (deductible) IRAs increased slightly from last year: for singles covered by a retirement plan, your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) must be less than $60,000 for a full deduction; phased deduction is allowed up to an AGI of $70,000.  This is an increase of $1,000 over the limits for last year.  For married folks filing jointly who are covered by a retirement plan by his or her employer, the AGI limit is increased to $96,000, phased out at $116,000, which is also a $1,000 increase over last year’s limits.  For married folks filing jointly who are not covered by a workplace retirement plan but are married to someone who is covered, the AGI limit for deduction is $181,000, phased out at $191,000; this is an increase of $3,000 over 2013’s limits.

The income limits for Roth IRA contributions also increased: single folks with an AGI less than $114,000 can make a full contribution, and this is phased out up to an AGI of $129,000, an increase of $2,000 at each end of the range.  For married folks filing jointly, the AGI limits are $181,000 to $191,000 for Roth contributions, up by $3,000 over 2013.

401(k), 403(b), 457 and SARSEP plans

For the traditional employer-based retirement plans, the amount of deferred income allowed has remained the same as well. For 2014, employees are allowed to defer up to $17,500 with a catch up amount of $5,500 for those over age 50 (all figures unchanged from 2013).  If you happen to work for a governmental agency that offers a 457 plan in addition to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, you can double up and defer as much as $35,000 plus catch-ups, for a total of $46,000.

The limits for contributions to Roth 401(k) and Roth 403(b) are the same as traditional plans – the limit is for all plans of that type in total.  You are allowed to contribute up to the limit for either a Roth plan or a traditional plan, or a combination of the two.

SIMPLE

Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE) deferral limit also remains unchanged at $12,000 for 2014.  The catch up amount remains the same as 2013 at $2,500, for folks at or older than age 50.

Saver’s Credit

The income limits for receiving the Saver’s Credit for contributing to a retirement plan increased for 2014.  The AGI limit for married filing jointly increased from $59,000 to $60,000; for singles the new limit is $30,000 (up from $29,500); and for heads of household, the AGI limit is $45,000, an increase from $44,250.  The saver’s credit rewards low and moderate income taxpayers who are working hard and need more help saving for retirement.  The table below provides more details on how the saver’s credit works (Form 8880 is not updated yet for 2014, so the figures for the 50% and 20% limits will likely change):

Filing Status/Adjusted Gross Income for 2014
Amount of Credit Married Filing Jointly Head of Household Single/Others
50% of first $2,000 deferred $0 to $35,500 $0 to $26,625 $0 to $17,750
20% of first $2,000 deferred $35,501 to $38,500 $26,626 to $28,875 $17,751 to $19,250
10% of first $2,000 deferred $38,501 to $60,000 $28,876 to $45,000 $19,251 to $30,000
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Why Diversify?

Diversity

Diversity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember Enron? I think we all do. Enron was once a powerhouse company that saw its empire crumble and took the wealth of many of its employees with it. Why was that the case? Many of Enron’s employees had their 401(k) retirement savings in Enron stock. This was the classic example of having all of your eggs in one basket and zero diversification.

Let’s say that the employees had half of their retirement in Enron stock and half in a mutual fund. Enron tanks but their mutual fund stays afloat. This means that they lost, but only lost half of their retirement, all else being equal.

Imagine if they had only a quarter of their retirement in Enron and the remaining 75% in three separate mutual funds. Enron’s demise is only responsible for a fourth of their retirement evaporating. This could go on and on.

The point is that when you choose to diversify you’re spreading your risk among a number of different companies. That way if one goes belly-up you’re not left with nothing.

Mutual funds are an excellent way to diversify among an asset class. For example, if you purchased a total stock market index fund you’d have nearly the entire US Stock Market in your portfolio which amounts to approximately 4,100 different stocks.

That’s great diversification but we can do better. The US equity market is only one area. We can diversify into domestic bonds, international stocks, international bonds, real estate, and so on. This is called diversifying among asset class. The point is that you want to spread your risk and diversify as much as possible so one market or asset class doesn’t ruin your entire portfolio.

A term we use often in the industry is correlation. This simply means how one particular security moves in relation to another. If I own two large cap growth funds they’re pretty closely correlated; meaning that if large cap companies fall both of these funds are going to fall very similarly.

If I own a large cap fund and a bond fund, then if large cap stocks fall, the bonds may rise or may stay the same or even fall slightly. This is because they are a different asset class and move differently than equities. Keep adding different assets to the mix and you have a potential portfolio that can withstand the dip and turns of the market.

Even the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett diversifies. Granted he may have all of his eggs in one basket, Berkshire Hathaway, but own Berkshire Hathaway stock and you’ll get exposure to insurance, bricks, candy, cutlery and underwear to name a few. Admittedly, not many people have $175,000 to buy just one share of BRK stock, but the point is that even Mr. Buffett diversifies.

Diversify. It works.

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Exceptions to the 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty from IRAs and 401(k)s

English: A clock made in Revolutionary France,...

English: A clock made in Revolutionary France, showing the 10-hour metric clock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you take money out of your IRA or 401(k) plan (or other qualified retirement plan, such as a 403(b) plan), if you’re under age 59½ in most cases your withdrawal will be subject to a penalty of 10%, in addition to any taxes owed on the distribution.  There are many exceptions to this rule though, and the exceptions are not the same for all types of plans.  IRAs have one set of rules, and 401(k)s have another set of rules.

The exceptions are always related to the purpose for which the money was withdrawn.  The exact same dollars withdrawn do not have to be used for the excepted purpose, just that the excepted expense was incurred.

IRA Exceptions

It is important to know that all distributions from your traditional IRA are subject to ordinary income tax, but some distributions are not subject to the early withdrawal penalty.  The list of exceptions for early withdrawals from IRAs is as follows:

Death of the owner of the IRA – if the owner of the IRA dies, the beneficiaries of the IRA can (in fact, must) take withdrawals from the plan without paying the 10% penalty.

Total and permanent disability of the owner of the IRA – if the owner of the IRA is deemed to be totally and permanently disabled.   You are considered disabled if you can furnish proof that you cannot do any substantial gainful activity because of your physical or mental condition. A physician must determine that your condition can be expected to result in death or to be of long, continued, and indefinite duration.

SOSEPP – With a Series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments, lasting at least five years or until age 59½ (whichever is longer), there is no 10% penalty applied.

Medical Expenses – if you have medical expenses greater than 7.5% of your Adjusted Gross Income, a distribution from your IRA to cover these expenses (the excess above 7.5% of AGI) will not be subject to the penalty.  Any amounts paid by insurance toward the medical expenses reduces the overall expense counted toward the excepted expenses.

Health Insurance Premiums – if you’re unemployed, you can take a distribution from your IRA to cover your health insurance premiums without paying the penalty.

Qualified higher education expenses – amounts withdrawn from your IRA to pay for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment needed for enrollment or attendance of a student at an eligible higher education institution are not subjected to the penalty.  In addition, if the student is at least a half-time student, room and board expenses paid for with an IRA distribution would not be subject to the penalty.  The amount of education expenses is reduced by any scholarships, grants, and qualified 529 plan distributions; any amount applied to an IRA penalty exception is also not eligible to be used toward education credits, such as the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit.

First-time home purchase – amounts withdrawn from your IRA up to $10,000 that are used toward a qualified first-time home purchase are an exception to the penalty.

Qualified reservist distributions – if a reservist who is called to active duty after September 11, 2001 for a period of 179 days or more takes a distribution from an IRA (after the start of active duty and before the end of active duty) the distribution will not be subject to the 10% penalty.

Rollovers – both direct, trustee-to-trustee transfers and 60-day indirect transfers are exempted from the penalty.

Excess contributions – if you have contributed too much to your IRA, you can take out the excess contribution without penalty.  However, any growth that is attributed to the amount that you over-contributed will be subject to the 10% penalty and taxes when withdrawn.

401(k) Exceptions

As with the IRA, most withdrawals from a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan are subject to taxation.  Early withdrawals before age 59½ are also subject to a 10% penalty, with some exceptions.  The exceptions are as follows:

Death of the participant – this is the same as the exception for an IRA above.

Total and permanent disability of the participant – same as with an IRA.

SOSEPP – same as with an IRA.

Medical Expenses – same as with an IRA.

Qualified reservist distributions – same as with an IRA.

Rollovers – same as with an IRA.  However, an indirect 60-day rollover (not a trustee-to-trustee transfer) is subject to mandatory 20% withholding.  If the withheld 20% is not transferred within 60 days, this amount may be subject to both taxation and the 20% early withdrawal penalty.

Corrective distributions – just like with an IRA, if you have contributed too much to your 401(k), you can take out the excess contribution without penalty. However, any growth that is attributed to the amount that you over-contributed will be subject to the 10% penalty and taxes when withdrawn.

Separation from service after age 55 – if you leave employment after the age of 55, you are eligible to take distributions from your 401(k) or other QRP without penalty.  This is only valid while the funds are still in the 401(k) – if you rollover the funds to an IRA, this option is no longer available.  If the participant is a public safety employee (police, fire, or emergency medical technicians), the age is 50 or older.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) – in the event of a divorce, if the 401(k) is to be divided or distributed to the ex-spouse of the participant, withdrawals from the plan by the ex-spouse are not subject to the 10% penalty.

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Your Employer’s Retirement Plan

Backcountry Provisions

Whether you work as a doctor, teacher, office administrator, attorney, or government employee chances are you have access to your employer’s retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b), 457, SEP, or SIMPLE. These plans are a great resource to save money into, and some employers will even pay you to participate!

Let’s start with the 401(k). A 401(k) is a savings plan that is started by your employer to encourage both owners of the business and employees to save for retirement. Depending on how much you want to save, you can choose to have a specific dollar amount or percentage of your gross pay directed to your 401(k) account. Your money in your account can be invested tax-deferred in stock or bond mutual funds, company stock (if you work for a publicly traded company), or even a money market account. Your choice of funds will depend on the company that offers the 401(k) through your employer. Generally, you’re going to want to choose funds with low fees and expenses. As of 2013, the maximum amount you can put into your 401(k) is $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older. At age 59 ½ qualified withdrawals are now taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to penalties with some exceptions.

A cousin to the 401(k) is the 403(b). The 403(b) is very similar to the 401(k) in that you’re allowed to allocate a certain amount or percentage of your gross pay to your account, tax-deferred. Where the 403(b) differs is that it’s only allowed for non-profits such as school districts, hospitals, municipalities, and qualified charitable organizations. Another difference is by law the money in your 403(b) can only be invested in mutual funds or annuity contracts. You’re not allowed to own individual stocks or bonds in it. Like the 401(k), you’re allowed to save (as of 2013) $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older. At age 59 ½ qualified withdrawals are now taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to penalties with some exceptions.

Branching out in our retirement plan family tree we come to the 457 plan. 457 plans are reserved for certain non-profits such as hospitals, government entities, school districts and colleges and universities. As you may have guessed, 457 plans are similar to their 401(k) and 403(b) counterparts in that money from your gross pay goes into your account tax-deferred. Like the 403(b) the 457 only allows investments in mutual funds or annuity contracts.

Similar to the 401(k) and 403(b), you’re allowed to save up to $17,500 annually and another $5,500 “catch-up” contribution if you’re age 50 or older (for 2013). Unlike the 401(k) and 403(b) the 457 allows you access to your money at any age, as long as you’re separated from service from your employer. For example, if you were 40 years old and have been saving into a 457 since you were age 25 and you saved $50,000 and you were fired, laid off or resigned, you’d have access to your 457 money without penalty; you’d simply pay ordinary income tax on any withdrawals.

Another key point to make is in regards to the aggregation rule. What this means is that you’re only allowed to invest $17,500 (along with the “catch-up” if you qualify) total between a 401(k) and a 403(b). For example, you work as a professor for nine months of the year and save $14,000 in your college’s 403(b). Over the summer, you work part time for a company that offers a 401(k) plan and you want to save money there. Assuming you’re age 40, you’d only be able to save an additional $3,500 to your summer company’s 401(k) – for a total of $17,500.

There is one exception to the aggregation rule. If you have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) and a 457, you are allowed to contribute the maximum to the 401(k) or 403(b) – for a total of $17,500 and then contribute the maximum to the 457 for an annual total of $35,000. The 457 trumps the aggregation rule. Few people may be able to actually sock away $35,000 per year, but it is available to those that work for employers offering both plans or if you work for two or more employers and they offer one or the other.

SEPs and SIMPLEs work a bit different. Typically these plans are available to smaller employers and SEPs are common for those that are self-employed. Both SEPs and SIMPLEs use IRAs as the funding vehicle to place retirement money, but each has different requirements as to contribution limits and participation requirements.

SEPs (Simplified Employee Pensions) can be funded to a maximum of $51,000 annually (for 2013) or 25% of the employee’s salary – whichever is smaller. There can be corresponding tax deductions involved that may be beneficial for solo businesses or businesses with a small number of employees as there are requirements that all employees must participate.

SIMPLEs (Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees) are another option for smaller businesses looking to start a retirement plan and looking for a cost effective way to start (a 401(k) can be administratively expensive). Essentially, both employer and employees are allowed to participate and certain rules dictate that the employer must make a matching contribution (hence the Match in the name) to participating employees. As of 2013 you can contribute a maximum of $12,000 annually to a SIMPLE plan with an additional “catch-up” contribution of $2,500 if you’re age 50 or older.

The aggregation rule that applies to the 401(k) and 403(b) also applies to SEPs and SIMPLEs. This means that of the four plans for 2013, you’re still only allowed a total contribution of $17,500 annually ($23,000 if you’re age 50 or over). Having a 457 would be the only way to increase this amount.

Like SEPs and SIMPLEs, some 401(k) and 403(b) plans also have the company match. This means that in addition to your contributions, your employer will also make a contribution or “match” to the amount you’re contributing up to a certain percent. Consider taking full advantage of this. It’s free money! There are several reasons why an employer would do this ranging from plan compliance to helping ensure employee satisfaction and loyalty.

Finally, participating in your employer’s plan does not prohibit you from participating in a Traditional or Roth IRA. You are allowed to contribute the maximum allowed by law to both your employer’s plan and your own IRA.

It goes without saying that before you decide to participate, talk with your human resources department (not your cubicle buddy) or a financial professional regarding your options and which option or combination is right for you.

Rolling Over a 401(k) into a New Employer’s Plan

Beethoven

When you change jobs you have a choice to make regarding your retirement plan at former employer.  If the plan is a 401(k), 403(b), or other qualified plan of that nature, you may have the option to roll the old plan into a plan at your new employer.

The new employer’s plan must allow rollovers into the plan – this isn’t always automatic.  Most plans will allow rollover of former employer’s plans, but not all.  Once you’ve determined that the plan will accept a rollover, you should review the new plan to understand whether or not it makes sense to roll your old plan into it, or choose another option.  Other options may be: rollover the old plan into an IRA, convert the old plan to a Roth IRA, leave the old plan where it is, or take a distribution from the old plan in cash.

In this article we’ll just deal with rolling over the old plan to your new plan.

If the new plan has some compelling features, such as access to very low cost institutional investments or attractive closed investment options, or if the plan has very low overhead and great flexibility, you might want to rollover your old plan into it.  Other reasons that might compel you to rollover the old plan might be – to have access to loan features (IRAs don’t have this), access to your funds when leaving your employer after age 55 but before age 59½, and ERISA protection against creditors.

There may be reasons to leave your old plan at the old employer though.  The two that come to mind are NUA treatment of stock of the old employer, and if you think you’ll need access to the funds before you leave the new employer (especially if you’ve left that employer after age 55).

So after reviewing the options and features, you’ve decided to rollover the old plan to the new employer’s plan.  It’s a relatively straightforward process:  you contact the old plan’s administrator and request a rollover distribution form. You should have already contacted the new plan’s administrator to ensure that the new plan will accept a rollover.  Once you have the rollover distribution form from the old employer, get any pertinent information from the new employer, such as your employee id, or an account number for the new plan.

On the rollover distribution form, you’ll have the option to send the distribution directly to the new plan – called a trustee-to-trustee transfer.  In this manner, the funds never come into your possession.  This is important, because if you take distribution in cash from the old plan, the IRS requires that 20% is automatically withheld from the distribution.  You could still send the distribution to the new plan – but you’d have to come up with the 20% that was withheld in order to make the transfer “whole”.  It’s not required that you make a complete transfer, but if you take any of the funds in cash, including the withheld 20%, this money will be taxable as ordinary income, and if you’re under age 59½ it will likely also be subject to an additional 10% penalty.

After all of this has occurred, your new plan will have the additional old plan money rolled into the account.  Most likely this will be entirely in cash when it arrives in the account – so you will need to make investment allocation choices for the new addition to the account.

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How Dollar-Cost-Averaging Can Work to Your Advantage for Your 401(k)

Average Afternoon on Highway 401

When you invest in your 401(k) plan with salary deferrals from each and every paycheck, you are taking part in a process known as Dollar-Cost-Averaging (DCA).  This process can be advantageous when investing periodically over a long span of time, by smoothing out the volatility of the market and giving you an average cost of your investment shares over time.

How does this work, and how can it be advantageous?

Dollar-Cost-Averaging

When deferring income with each paycheck, typically you will be investing in your 401(k) plan each pay period, whether monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly.  Each pay period the same amount is deferred and invested, no matter what the price of the underlying investments are at the time.  Since you’re always putting the same amount into the investment, when the price of the shares is higher, you purchase fewer shares; when the price is lower, you are purchasing more shares.

Note: DCA can be used with any type of investment account, including a 401(k), 403(b), IRA, or even a non-tax-deferred investment account.  We’ll refer to 401(k) accounts throughout the article since this is one of the more common accounts where DCA is employed.

For example, let’s say that you defer $100 every two weeks into your 401(k) plan, and your investment is an index fund.  For the first pay period the price of the fund is $10.  When you make your deferral and purchase this time, your $100 purchases 10 shares.

Then, in the next pay period the price of the shares of your index fund has increased to $10.50.  Now your $100 purchases 9.5238 shares, and you have a total of 19.5238 shares, at a price of $10.50 per share, for a total account value of $205.

On the following pay period the price of your index fund has fallen to $9.50 per share.  Your $100 deferred will purchase 10.5263 shares of the fund – you now have a total of 30.0501 shares at a price of $9.50, with a total account value of $285.48.

The table below plays out purchases with random amounts over a year and then tallies the result:

Pay Period Amount Deferred Price Per Share
Shares Purchased
Total Shares Total Value
1 $100 $10.55 9.4787 9.4787 $100.00
2 $100 $10.44 9.5785 19.0572 $198.96
3 $100 $9.92 10.0806 29.1378 $289.05
4 $100 $10.33 9.6805 38.8183 $400.99
5 $100 $11.95 8.3682 47.1865 $563.88
6 $100 $11.36 8.8028 55.9893 $636.04
7 $100 $9.14 10.9409 66.9302 $611.74
8 $100 $9.54 10.4822 77.4124 $738.51
9 $100 $11.67 8.569 85.9814 $1003.40
10 $100 $9.76 10.2459 96.2273 $939.18
11 $100 $10.46 9.5602 105.7875 $1106.54
12 $100 $9.62 10.395 116.1825 $1117.68
13 $100 $10.23 9.7752 125.9577 $1288.55
14 $100 $10.70 9.3458 135.3035 $1447.75
15 $100 $10.40 9.6154 144.9189 $1507.16
16 $100 $11.52 8.6806 153.5995 $1769.47
17 $100 $11.37 8.7951 162.3946 $1846.43
18 $100 $10.91 9.1659 171.5605 $1871.73
19 $100 $11.55 8.658 180.2185 $2081.52
20 $100 $10.37 9.6432 189.8617 $1968.87
21 $100 $10.19 9.8135 199.6752 $2034.69
22 $100 $9.98 10.02 209.6952 $2092.76
23 $100 $11.89 8.4104 218.1056 $2593.28
24 $100 $11.82 8.4602 226.5658 $2678.01
25 $100 $10.33 9.6805 236.2463 $2440.42
26 $100 $11.41 8.7642 245.0105 $2795.57

The table above was created by generating random prices between $9 and $11.99 over the 26 periods. In real life, your investment wouldn’t likely have such wildly-fluctuating values during the course of 26 pay periods – I used this degree of fluctuation to demonstrate the benefit of DCA when the investment is relatively volatile.

The Advantage

If, instead of investing $100 every two weeks you saved up the entire $2600 and invested it at the end of the 26th pay period, you would be purchasing all of the shares at $11.41, for a total of 227.8703 shares.  By DCA, your $2600 has increased in value such that you hold 245.0105 shares, with a value of $2795.57 – a net benefit of $195.57.

On the other hand, if you had $2600 to invest at the beginning of the table when the price was $10.55 per share, you would have purchased a total of 246.4455 shares, which would be worth a total of $2811.94 at the end of the 26 periods.

You can see from the table that by Dollar-Cost-Averaging, you achieve an average price per share over the period that is beneficial to you – since you’re purchasing exactly the same dollar amount of shares every time.  When the price is high, you buy fewer shares, and when the price is low you buy more shares.  By doing this over a long period of time, such as 30 years, you will avoid the risk associated with saving up a large sum of money and (perhaps) purchasing shares in an investment at a relatively high price by comparison over the savings period.

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Defined Contribution vs. Defined Benefit Plans

Silage at Mount Pleasant: Define 'Pleasant'

Many employers have made retirement plans available for their employees, and sometimes there are multiple types of plans that the employee can participate in.  These retirement plans fall into two categories: Defined Contribution and Defined Benefit plans.  In this article we’ll cover the differences between the two types of plans.

Defined Benefit (DB) Plans

The older type of retirement plan is the Defined Benefit Plan. (We’ll refer to this as DB for the rest of the article.)  DB plans are generally the old standard pension-type of plan, and this category of plan is named as it is because the benefit is a defined amount in a pension plan.

By a defined amount, we mean that a formula is used to calculate the amount of pension that you’ll receive.  The formula typically uses factors such as your years of employment, your average salary (either over your entire career, or perhaps over the most recent five years, as an example), your age when you begin receiving the pension payments, and other factors.

Let’s look at an example. Your final five years of salary averaged $50,000 per year and you had 25 years of service with the company. Your defined benefit calculation might be something like 2% per year of service times the average salary during your final five years, or 50% of $50,000 – for a pension of $25,000.  Pension calculations can be very complicated, this was a very simple example.  A few of the variances include:

  • a flat amount formula unrelated to years of service or earnings;
  • a flat percentage of earnings, unrelated to years of service;
  • a flat amount per year of service, unrelated to earnings; or
  • a percentage of earnings per year of service, reflecting both earnings and service.

Once the amount of your pension is defined, you will know how much benefit you’ll receive when you begin receiving it – and it’s a guarantee.  It is for this reason that DB plans are often considered to be more valuable than Defined Contribution (DC) plans.  As you’ll see in the next section, DC plans don’t have such a guarantee.

This guaranteed benefit comes at the cost of the employer.  Since the employer must provide that specific benefit, variables such as the rate of return on investments, inflation, and the like, can have a negative affect on the funds available to pay the benefit. This can cause the employer to have to purchase insurance products that will account for those variables, which can be quite costly.

Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

This type of retirement plan is the newer of the two types, but it’s also the one that requires more participation from the employee.  The DC plan is generally a savings plan, such as a 401(k) plan, and the employee and employer make contributions to the account.  The amounts that can be contributed to the plan are limited by IRS definitions, and that’s the reason that these plans are called Defined Contributions – since the Contribution amount is defined.

There are a couple of types of DC plans – profit-sharing plans and stock bonus plans.  These can also be mixed together to create a hybrid DC plan.  The profit-sharing type of plan is where the profits of the business are shared among the employees in cash, where the stock bonus plan is a distribution of company stock to the employees.

Since the contribution is the amount that is defined in a DC plan (rather than the benefit, as in DB plans), the benefit that the employee will receive during retirement is not known.  The amount that the employee may receive during retirement is based completely on the following factors:

  1. How much the employee and employer contribute to the plan;
  2. What rate of return the plan experiences; and
  3. How long the funds are allowed to grow in the plan.

The amount that the employee contributes to the plan is totally up to the employee – these plans are voluntary in nature.  Contributing more to the plan is the primary thing that you can change to improve your chances of increasing the amount of funds that your plan will eventually have upon your retirement.

Rates of return are completely variable – this depends solely on what happens with the various investment choices that you use for investing your DC account.  If the investments you choose increase in value over time (which we hope that they would) then you’ll see your investment nest egg increase in value.  Sometimes you’ll see the investments go up in value, sometimes the investments will go down.

This is the same for both DB and DC plans – but in the case of the DC plan you’re not guaranteed a specific benefit, so reductions to your investments are borne solely by you, the account holder.  On the other hand, if there is a reduction experienced by the investments in a DB plan, the employer (or the insurance company that owns the pension annuity) must make up the difference to ensure that you receive the benefit that has been defined for you.

Comparison

Below is a table which compares the two types of plans:

Defined Benefit Defined Contribution
Cost variability and Risk Borne by the employer Borne solely by the employee
Funding Employer Employer and employee
Most Beneficial to Longer-term employees; encourages longer tenure as benefits are often increased by years of service Shorter-term employees; may encourage changing jobs to provide access to the account’s funds.
Cost to Employer Higher cost due to variances in returns Lowest costs; administrative costs only
Access to Account Generally not accessible pre-retirement Loans may be available, as well as inservice distributions after a specific age
Tax Benefit Employer only Employer and employee both receive tax benefits
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