401(a) vs 401(k): What's the Difference?

By MP Dunleavey · January 30, 2024 · 15 minute read

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401(a) vs 401(k): What's the Difference?

A 401(k) plan and a 401(a) plan may sound confusingly similar, but there are some differences between the two retirement accounts.

The biggest differences between 401(k) vs 401(a) plans are in the types of companies that offer them and their contribution requirements. While most private sector companies are eligible to offer 401(k) plans, only certain government and public organizations can offer their employees a 401(a) plan. Employers must contribute to 401(a) plans and can make it mandatory for employees to contribute a pre-set amount as well. By contrast, employers do not have to contribute to 401(k) plans and employees are free to choose whether they want to contribute.

Key Points

•   A 401(a) plan is an employer-sponsored retirement account typically available to government workers and employees at educational institutions and nonprofits. Employer contributions are mandatory, while employee contributions may be voluntary.

•   A 401(k) plan is offered by for-profit employers as part of the employee’s compensation package. Employers are permitted but not required to contribute to a 401(k) plan.

•   For 2023, the total contribution limit — from both employer and employee — is $66,000 for 401(a) and 401(k) plans, with an additional $7,500 catchup contribution allowed for employees age 50 or older.

•   Employee contributions to 401(a) or 401(k) plans in 2023 can amount to $22,500, or for people 50 or older the cap is $30,000. However, employee contributions cannot exceed their salary.

•   You can borrow from either a 401(a) or a 401(k) plan with restrictions. Withdrawals before age 59 1⁄2 may incur penalties. Employees can begin to withdraw money without penalty when they turn 59 1⁄2.

What Is a 401(a) Plan?

A 401(a) plan is an employer-sponsored type of retirement account that typically covers government workers and employees from specific education institutions and nonprofits. It is different from an IRA in that the employer sponsors the plan, determines the investment options that the employees can choose from, and sets the vesting schedule (the amount of time an employee will have had to have worked with the organization before all employer contributions become fully theirs, even if they leave the company).

With IRAs, the individual investor decides how much to contribute and if/when they want to make withdrawals from the account. With a 401(a) plan, employer contributions are mandatory; employee contributions are not. All contributions made to the plan accrue on a tax-deferred basis.

Recommended: IRAs vs 401(k) plans

However, withdrawing from either type of plan may incur penalties for withdrawing money before age 59 ½.

What Is a 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) plan is a benefit offered by for-profit employers as part of the employee’s compensation package. The employer establishes the plan, along with the investment options the employee can choose from and the vesting schedule. As with 401(a) plans, funds contributed are tax-deferred and help employees save for retirement.

Some employers choose to offer a match program in which the company matches employee contributions up to a specific limit.

401(k) plans are also accessible to entrepreneurs and self-employed business owners.

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Who Contributes to Each Plan?

Under a 401(a) plan, employer contributions are mandatory, though the employer can decide whether they’ll contribute a percentage of the employees’ income or a specific dollar amount. Employers can establish multiple 401(a) accounts for their employees with different eligibility requirements, vesting schedules, and contribution amounts.

Employee participation is voluntary, with contributions capped at 25% of their pre-tax income.

Under a 401(k) plan, employees can voluntarily choose to contribute a percentage of their pre-tax salary. Employees are not required to participate in a 401(k) plan.

Employers are permitted but not required to contribute to a 401(k) plan, and many will match up to a certain amount — say, 3% — of employees’s salaries.

401(a) vs 401(k) Contribution Limits

For 2023, the total 401(a) contribution limit — from both employer and employee — is $66,000. However, employees with 401(a) plans can also contribute to a 403(b) plan and a 457 plan simultaneously (more on those plans in the 401(a) vs Other Retirement Plan Options section).

Employee contributions for 401(k) plans have a $23,000 limit in 2024 and a $22,500 limit in 2023. Employees who are 50 or older may contribute up to an additional $7,500 for a total of $30,500 in 2024 and a total of $30,000 in 2023. An employee with a 401(k) plan can also have a Roth or traditional IRA. However, there are limits on how much they can contribute to an IRA account — $7,000 for a traditional IRA for 2024 and $6,500 for a traditional IRA for 2023, with an extra $1,000 for people over age 50.

401(a) vs 401(k) Investment Options

401(a) vs 401(k) plans often offer various investment options, which may include more conservative investments such as stable value funds to more aggressive investments such as stock funds. Some 401(a) plans may allow employees to simplify diversified portfolios or seek investment advice through the plan’s advisor.

Most 401(k) plans also offer various investment choices ranging from low-risk investments like annuities and municipal bonds to equity funds that invest in stocks and reap higher returns.

💡 Quick Tip: All investments come with some degree of risk — and some are riskier than others. Before investing online, decide on your investment goals and how much risk you want to take.

401(a) vs 401(k) Tax Rules

The tax rules in a 401(a) plan may be one difference between a 401(k) and 401(a).

With a 401(a), employees make pre-tax or after-tax contributions, depending on how their employer decides to structure the plan. Pre-tax means contributions are not taxed at the time of investment, but later upon withdrawal. After-tax means contributions are taxed before being deposited into the account

A 401(k), on the other hand, is a tax-deferred retirement plan, meaning all contributions are pre-tax. The wages employees choose to contribute to their plan are untaxed upon initial investment. Income taxes only kick in when the employee decides to withdraw funds from their account.

Can You Borrow from Each Plan?

You can borrow from either a 401(a) or a 401(k) plan if you have an immediate financial need, but there are some restrictions and it is possible to incur early withdrawal penalties.

An employer can limit the amount borrowed from a 401(a) plan — and may choose not to allow employees to borrow funds. If the employer does allow loans, the maximum amount an employee can borrow is the lesser of:

•   $10,000 or half of the vested account balance, whichever is greater OR

•   $50,000

Because the employee is borrowing money from their account, when the employee pays back the loan’s interest, they are paying it to themselves. However, the IRS requires employees to pay back the entire loan within five years . If they don’t pay the loan back, the IRS will consider the loan balance to be a withdrawal and will require taxation on the remaining loan amount as well as a 10% penalty if the employee is under age 59 ½.

Borrowing from a 401(k) plan is similar. Employees are limited to borrowing $50,000 or half of the vested balance — whichever is less. One big difference between borrowing from a 401(a) vs. a 401(k) plan is employees lose out on a tax break if they borrow from their 401(k) because they are repaying it with after-tax dollars. Because the money is taxed again when withdrawn during retirement, an investor is essentially being taxed twice on that money.

Can You Borrow Money from a 401(a) or 401(k) to Buy a Home?

You may be able to use the funds from a 401(a) or 401(k) account to purchase a home. Remember, with 401(a) plans, the employer ultimately decides if loans are permitted from the 401(k).

If you borrow money from your 401(a) or 401(k) to fund the purchase of a home, you have at least five years to repay what you’ve taken out.

The maximum amount you’re allowed to borrow follows the rules stated above:

•   $50,000 OR

•   The greater between $10,000 or half of what’s vested in your account,

Whichever is less.

When Can You Withdraw From Your Retirement Plan?

Employees can begin to withdraw money from their 401(a) plan without penalty when they turn 59 ½. If they make any withdrawals before 59 ½, they will need to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Once they reach 70 ½, they’re required to make withdrawals if they haven’t already started to.

With a 401(k) plan, if an employee retires at age 55, they can start withdrawing money without penalty. However, to take advantage of this early-access provision, they need to have kept the money in the 401(k) plan and not have rolled it into a Roth IRA.

Employees also need to have ended their employment no earlier than the year in which they turn 55.

Otherwise, the restrictions are the same as with a 401(a) plan, and they can begin to withdraw money penalty-free once they turn 59 ½.

401(a) vs 401(k) Rollover Rules

Generally, 401(a) and 401(k) accounts have similar rollover rules. When an employee chooses to leave their job, they have the option to roll over funds. The employee can choose to roll the account into another retirement plan or take a lump-sum distribution. Generally, if the employee decides to roll over their plan to another plan, they have to do so within 60 days of moving the funds.

The rules for a 401(a) rollover dictate that funds can be transferred to another qualified plan like a 401(k) or an individual retirement account (IRA). The rules for 401(k)s are the same.

If the employee decides to take a lump-sum distribution from the account, they will have to pay income taxes on the full amount. If they are under 59 ½, they will also have to pay the 10% penalty.

Recommended: How To Roll Over a 401(k)

What Happens to Your 401(a) or 401(k) If You Quit Your Job?

If you quit your job, you can leave the money in your former employer’s plan, roll it into the plan of your new employer, transfer it to a Rollover IRA, or cash it out. If you are under age 59 ½ and cash out the plan, you will likely need to pay taxes and a 10% penalty.

However, if you quit your job before you are fully invested in the plan, you will not get your employer’s contributions. You will only get what you contributed to the plan.

What Is a 401(a) Profit Sharing Plan?

A 401(a) profit sharing plan is a tax-advantaged account used to save for retirement. Employees and employers contribute to the account based on a set formula determined by the employer. Unlike 401(a) plans, the employer’s contributions are discretionary, and they may not contribute to the plan every year.

All contributions from employees are fully vested. The ownership of the employer contributions may vary depending on the vesting schedule they create.

Like 401(a) plans, 401(a) profit sharing plans allow employees to select their investments and roll over the account to a new plan if the employee leaves the company. If an employee wants to take a distribution before reaching age 59 ½, they are subject to income taxation and a 10% penalty.

Summarizing the Differences Between 401(k) and 401(a) Plans

The main differences between a 401(k) and 401(a) are:

•   401(a) plans are typically offered by the government and nonprofit organizations, while 401(k) plans are offered by private employers.

•   Employees don’t have to participate in a 401(K), but they often must participate in a 401(a).

•   An employer decides how much employees contribute to a 401(a), while 401(k) participants can contribute what they like.

•   With a 401(a), employees make pre-tax or after-tax contributions, depending on how their employer decides to structure the plan. With a 401(k), all contributions are pre-tax.

Summarizing the Similarities Between 401(a) vs 401(k) Plans

A 401(k) vs. a 401(a) has similarities as well. These include:

•   Both types of plans are employer-sponsored retirement accounts.

•   Employees can borrow money from each plan, though certain restrictions apply.

•   There may be a 10% penalty for withdrawing funds before age 59 ½ for both plans.

401(a) vs Other Retirement Plan Options

401(a) vs 403b

A 403b is a tax-advantaged retirement plan offered by specific schools and nonprofits. Like 401(a) and 401(k) plans, employees can contribute with pre-tax dollars. Employers can choose to match contributions up to a certain amount. Unlike the 401(a) plan, employers don’t have mandatory contributions.

For 2024, the employee contributions limit is $23,000. For 2023, the employee contributions limit is $22,500. If the plan allows, 50 or older employees may contribute a catch-up amount of $6,500.

Generally, 403b plans are either invested in annuities through an insurance company, a custodian account invested in mutual funds, or a retirement income account for church employees.

Additionally, 403b plans allow for rollovers and distributions without a 10% penalty after age 59 ½. Like similar plans, employees may have to pay a 10% penalty if they take a distribution before reaching age 59 ½ unless the distribution meets other qualifying criteria.

401(a) vs 457

457 plans are retirement plans offered by certain employers such as public education institutions, colleges, universities, and some nonprofit organizations. 457 plans share similar features with 401(a) plans, including pre-tax contributions, tax-deferred investment growth, and a choice of investments that employees can select.

Employees can also roll over funds to a new plan or take a lump-sum distribution if they leave their job. However, unlike a 401(a) or 401(k) plan, the withdrawal is not subject to a 10% IRS penalty.

Another option offered through 457 plans is for employees to contribute to their account on either a pre-tax or post-tax basis.

401(a) vs Pension

A 401(a) is a defined contribution plan, where a pension is a defined benefit plan. With a pension, employees receive the benefit of a fixed monthly income in retirement; their employer pays them a fixed amount each month for the rest of their life. The monthly payment can be based on factors like salary and years of employment.

With a 401(a), employees have access to what they and their employer contributed to their 401(a) account. In contrast to a pension plan, retirees aren’t guaranteed a fixed amount and their contributions may not last through the end of their life.

Pros and Cons of 401(k) vs 401(a) Plans

Both 401(k) and 401(a) plans have pros and cons.

Pros of a 401(k):

•   Employers may match a portion of the employee’s contributions.

•   The plan is fairly easy to set up.

•   Employees generally have a wide range of investment options.

Pros of a 401(a):

•   Lower fees

•   Contributions are tax-deferred.

•   Both the employer and employee make monthly contributions.

Cons of a 401(k):

•   Fees may be high.

•   Need to wait until fully vested to keep employer matching contributions.

•   Penalty for withdrawing funds early.

Cons of a 401(a):

•   Investment choices may be limited.

•   Participation may be mandatory.

•   Penalty for withdrawing funds early.

💡 Quick Tip: How much does it cost to set up an IRA? Often there are no fees to open an IRA, but you typically pay investment costs for the securities in your portfolio.

Other Retirement Account Options

Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax contributions, which means they aren’t tax deductible. However, the withdrawals you take in retirement are tax-free.

You can withdraw the amount you contributed to an IRA at any time, without penalty.

The Roth IRA contribution limit for 2024 is $7,000 ($8,000 if you’re 50 or older) and for 2023 is $6,500 ($7,500 if you’re 50 or older).

Traditional IRAs

A traditional IRA is similar to a 401(k): both plans offer tax-deferred contributions that may lower your taxable income. However, in retirement, you will owe taxes on the money you withdraw from both accounts.

Unlike a 401(k), a traditional IRA is not an employer-sponsored plan. Anyone can set up an IRA to save money for retirement. And if you have a 401 k), you can also have a traditional IRA.

The IRA contribution limit for 2024 is $7,000 ($8,000 if you’re 50 or older) and for 2023 is $6,500 ($7,500 if you’re 50 or older).


An HSA, or Health Savings Account, allows you to cover healthcare costs using pre-tax dollars. But you can also use an HSA as a retirement account. At age 65, you can withdraw the money in your HSA and use it for any purpose. However, you will pay taxes on anything you withdraw that’s not used for medical expenses.

In 2024, you can contribute up to $4,150 in an HSA as an individual, or $8,300 for a family. In 2023, you can contribute up to $3,850 in an HSA as an individual, or $7,750 for a family.

Investing In Your Retirement

The largest difference between 401(a) and 401(k) plans is the type of employers offering the plans. Whereas 401(a) plans typically cover government workers and employees from specific education institutions and nonprofits, 401(k) plans are offered by for-profit organizations. Thus, a typical employee won’t get to choose which plan to invest in — the decision will be made based on what organization they work for.

Both 401(a) plans and 401(k) plans do have restrictions that might bother some investors. For example, an employee will be at the mercy of their employer’s choice when it comes to investing options.

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Is a 401(a) better than a 401(k)?

It’s not necessarily a matter of which plan is “better.” 401(k) plans are offered by private employers, while the government and nonprofits offer 401(a) plans. Both plans allow you to save for retirement in a tax-deferred way.

How are 401(a)s different from 401(k)s?

There are some differences between 401(k) and 401(a) plans. For instance, 401(a) plans are typically offered by the government and nonprofit organizations, while 401(k) plans are offered by private employers. In addition, employees don’t have to participate in a 401(k), but they often must participate in a 401(a). An employer decides how much employees contribute to a 401(a), while 401(k) participants can contribute what they like. And finally, those who have a 401(k) may have more investment options than those who have a 401(a).

Can you roll a 401(a) into a 401(k)?

Yes, you can roll a 401(a) into a 401(k) if you leave your job and then get a new job with a private company that offers a 401(k). You can also roll over a 401(a) into a traditional IRA.

Photo credit: iStock/solidcolours

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