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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.

Get involved!