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Understanding 457(b) vs. 403(b) Retirement Plans

If you work for a public service organization or government, you might be eligible for a special kind of retirement plan. Here’s what you need to know about the 457(b) versus 403(b) retirement savings account.

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5 min read
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Key Takeaways

  • These retirement savings plans are offered to public service employees 
  • The plan that may be available depends on your employer
  • Each plan allows for extra contributions under certain criteria

One of the best things you can do for your future self is to start saving for retirement as early as possible. Many employers offer tax-advantaged retirement plans, including public service and government organizations. These plans encourage workers to save and help them take advantage of potential compounding returns over time.

If you work in public service, you might be offered a 457(b) or a 403(b). Here’s what you need to know about 457(b) versus 403(b) retirement plans.

What Is a 457(b) Plan?

A 457(b) is generally offered to government public service employees.

“You need to be an employee of a government entity, like a state or local government,” said Christine Russell, senior manager, retirement and annuities at TD Ameritrade. “That might also include police officers or firefighters employed by a government.”

Many of these plans let you make contributions before taxes, allowing your money to grow tax-deferred. Later, when you withdraw from the plan, you pay taxes on the amount of the withdrawal at your marginal tax rate. Getting a tax break now can sometimes be an advantage, especially if you end up in a lower tax bracket during retirement. Later, you might owe less in taxes on the amount you withdraw, depending on your situation and how the tax regulations shape up in the future.

One of the interesting benefits of a 457(b) retirement plan is that you don’t end up with an early withdrawal penalty if you leave your job and need to take distributions. This is different from many other tax-deferred retirement plans like 401(k) plans, which tack on a 10% penalty if you withdraw money early, except in certain circumstances.

What Is a 403(b) Plan?

The 403(b) plan is usually offered to nonprofit workers in nongovernment jobs, according to Russell. For example, teachers at public or private schools, workers with 501(c)(3) charities, employees for some hospitals, and ministers with some religious organizations can contribute to these plans.

Unlike the 457(b), the 403(b) plan is subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take distributions before you reach age 59 1/2. But like the 457(b)—and 401(k) plans—contributions to a 403(b) plan are typically made with pretax dollars.

A 403(b) may allow you to take money out of the plan as a “loan” and if you pay it back timely have no taxes or penalty on the amount of the loan.

457(b) vs. 403(b): Contributions

Both of these plans have the same basic contribution limits. In 2020, the contribution limit is $19,500. Both plans allow for a catch-up contribution of up to $6,000 per year for those who are age 50 and older.

Note that 457(b) and 403(b) plans both have special provisions for making additional contributions on top of the basic contributions.

  • 457(b): Make an additional contribution—up to a grand total of $39,000 for 2020—if you’re within three years of your normal retirement age.
  • 403(b): Contribute an extra $3,000 per year if you have a tenure of 15 years and have contributed an average of $5,000 or less per year during that time.

These contribution rules can be attractive to those who work in nonprofit and government organizations. Check with your employer to see if your contributions can be taken directly from your paycheck and put into an investment account.

It’s also worth checking to see if your employer offers matching contributions. If so, a percentage of your contributions can be matched by the employer and added to your retirement account. This “free money” can potentially help you take advantage of tax-efficient compounding returns.

457(b) vs. 403(b) Plans: Bottom Line

It’s important to understand that you’re only eligible for these plans if you have a specific type of employer that offers them. You won’t get to choose between them, and there aren’t “solo” versions of these plans like you might see with a 401(k).

Both plans can be rolled into Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) if you do leave your employer and want to preserve your tax deferred status.

If your employer doesn’t offer a tax-advantaged retirement plan, you might consider opening an IRA to make your own contributions. However, it’s important to note that your annual contributions to an IRA are much lower, limited to $6,000 for 2020. It’s better than not contributing anything, though. Those who have income on the side or run a business might be able to open a SEP or SIMPLE IRA, both of which have higher contribution limits for business owners.

In the end, it’s important to consider your choices and talk to your employer about retirement benefits. Find out whether there’s a 457(b) or 403(b) plan available to you and, if there is, consider making plans to contribute regularly.

TD Ameritrade does not provide tax advice. We suggest you consult with a tax professional wit regards to your personal circumstances.

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Key Takeaways

  • These retirement savings plans are offered to public service employees 
  • The plan that may be available depends on your employer
  • Each plan allows for extra contributions under certain criteria

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