Understanding the 403(b) Retirement Plan: A Comprehensive Guide

By Pam O’Brien · January 29, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Understanding the 403(b) Retirement Plan: A Comprehensive Guide

If you work for a tax-exempt organization or a public school, you typically have access to a 403(b) plan rather than a 401(k). What is a 403(b)? It’s a workplace retirement plan that can help you start saving for your post-work future.

In this guide, find out how 403(b) plans work, who is eligible for them, and the rules for contributing.

Demystifying the 403(b) Plan

A retirement plan for employees of tax-exempt organizations and public schools, a 403(b) is also known as a tax-sheltered annuity or TSA plan. Employees can contribute to the plan directly from their paycheck, and their employer may contribute as well. A 403(b) can help you save for retirement.

What Exactly is A 403(b) Retirement Plan?

What is a 403(b)? The 403(b) retirement plan is a type of qualified retirement plan designed to help employees save for retirement. Certain schools, religious organizations, hospitals and other organizations often offer this plan to employees. (In layman’s terms, it’s the 401(k) of the nonprofit world.)

Like 401(k)s, 403(b) plans allow for regular contributions toward an employee’s retirement goal. Contributions are tax-deductible in the year they’re made. Also, you won’t pay taxes on any earnings in the account until you make withdrawals.

However, unlike 401(k)s, 403(b)s sometimes invest contributions in an annuity contract provided through an insurance company rather than allocate it into a stocks-and-bonds portfolio.

Distinguishing Between Different 403(b) Options

There are two main types of 403(b) plans: traditional and Roth. With a traditional 403(b), employees contribute pre-tax money to their 403(b) account. This reduces their taxable income, giving them an immediate tax advantage. They will pay taxes on the money when they withdraw it.

With a Roth 403(b), employees contribute after-tax dollars to the plan. They will not owe taxes on the money when they withdraw it.

Not every 403(b) plan offers a Roth version.

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The 403(b) Plan in Action: Participation and Contributions

The IRS states that a 403(b) plan “must be maintained under a written program which contains all the terms and conditions…” In other words, for the plan to be legitimate, paperwork is required.

An employee may get a whole packet of information about the 403(b) plan as part of the onboarding process. This package can include salary reduction agreement terms (this refers to employee contributions from the plan that come from the employee’s paychecks), eligibility rules, explanations of benefits, and more.

In certain limited cases, an employer may not be subject to this requirement. For example, church plans that don’t contain retirement income aren’t required to have a written 403(b) plan.

Who Gets to Participate?

Only employees of specific public and nonprofit employers are eligible to participate in 403(b)s, as are some ministers. You may have access to a 403(b) plan if you’re any of the following:

•   An employee of a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization

•   An employee of the public school system, including state colleges and universities, who is involved in the day-to-day operations of the school

•   An employee of a public school system organized by Indian tribal governments

•   An employee of a cooperative hospital service organization

•   A minister who works for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and is self-employed, or who works for a non-501(c)(3) organization but still functions as a minister in their day-to-day professional life

Employers may automatically enroll employees in a 403(b), though employees can opt out if they so choose. Of course, participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan is one good way to start saving for retirement.

Universal Availability Rule: Who Doesn’t Qualify for 403(b) Participation?

Employers must offer 403(b) coverage to all qualifying employees if they offer it to one — this rule is known as “universal availability.” However, plans may exclude certain employees, including those under the following circumstances:

•   Employees working fewer than 20 hours per week

•   Employees who contribute $200 or less to their 403(b) each year

•   Employees who participate in a retirement plan, like a 401(k) or 457(b), of the employer

•   Employees who are non-resident aliens

•   Employees who are students performing certain types of services

The same laws that allow these coverage limits also require employers to give employees notice of specific significant plan changes, like whether or not they have the right to make elective deferrals.

Types of Contributions: Understanding Your Options

You can contribute to your 403(b) through automatic paycheck deductions. This process is similar to that of a 401(k) — the employee agrees to have a certain amount of their salary redirected to the retirement plan during each pay period.

However, other types of 403(b)contributions are also eligible, including:

•   Nonelective contributions from your employer, such as matching or discretionary contributions

•   After-tax contributions can be made by an employee and reported as income in the year the funds are earned for tax purposes. These funds may or may not be designated Roth contributions. In this case, the employer needs to keep separate accounting records for Roth contributions, gains, and losses.

The Cap on Contributions: Limits and Regulations

In 2024, workers can put up to $23,000 into a 403(b) plan. In 2023, workers can put up to $22,500 into a 403(b) plan. Workers who’ve been with their employer for 15 years may be able to contribute an additional $3,000 if they meet certain requirements. Those age 50 or older can contribute an additional $7,500 to a 403(b).

Combined contributions from the employee and the employer may not exceed the lesser of 100% of the employee’s most recent yearly compensation or $69,000 in 2024 and $66,000 in 2023.

Investing Within Your 403(b) Plan

A 403(b) may offer an employee a more limited number of investment options compared to other retirement savings plans.

Exploring Investment Choices for Your 403(b)

One way 403(b) plans diverge from other retirement plans, like 401(k)s and even IRAs, is how the organization invests funds. Whereas other retirement plans allow account holders to invest in stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), 403(b)s commonly invest in annuity contracts sold by insurance companies.

Part of the reason these plans are known as “tax-sheltered annuities” is that they were once restricted to annuity investments alone — a limit removed in 1974. While many 403(b) plans still offer annuities, they have also largely embraced the portfolio model that 401(k) plans typically offer. 403(b) plans now typically also offer custodial accounts invested in mutual funds.

Comparing 403(b) with Other Retirement Plans

How does a 403(b) stack up against other retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, IRAs, and pension plans? Here’s how they compare.

403(b) vs. 401(k): Similarities and Differences

These two plans share many similarities. However, one notable difference between 403(b) plans and 401(k) plans is there is no profit sharing in 403(b)s — workplaces that are 403(b)-eligible aren’t working toward a profit.

Another way 403(b) plans diverge from 401(k)s is how the organization invests funds. Whereas other retirement plans allow account holders to invest in stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds, 403(b)s commonly invest in annuity contracts sold by insurance companies or in custodial accounts invested in mutual funds.

403(b) vs. IRA vs. Pension Plans: What’s Right for You?

An IRA offers more investment choices than a 403(b). With a 403(b), your investment options are narrower.

403(b) plans may also have higher fees than other retirement plans. In addition, certain 403(b) plans aren’t required to adhere to standards set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which protects employees who contribute to a retirement account.

However, 403(b)s have much higher contribution limits than IRAs. IRA contributions are $7,000 for 2024 for individuals under age 50, compared to $23,000 in contributions for a 403(b). IRA contributions are $6,500 for 2023 for individuals under age 50, compared to $22,500 in contributions for a 403(b).

As for pension plans, public school teachers are typically eligible for defined benefit pension plans that their employer contributes to that gives them a lump sum or a set monthly payment at retirement. These teachers should also be able to contribute to a 403(b), if it’s offered, to help them save even more for retirement.

Advantages and Challenges of a 403(b) Plan

There are both pros and cons to participating in a 403(b) plan. Here are some potential benefits and disadvantages to consider.

Tax Benefits and Employer Matching: The Upsides

As mentioned, a 403(b) offers tax advantages, whether you have a traditional or Roth 403(b) plan. Contribution limits are also higher than they are for an IRA.

Employers may match employees’ contributions to a 403(b). Check with your HR department to find out if your employer matches, and if so, how much.

Potential Drawbacks: Fees and Investment Choices

Some 403(b)s charge higher fees than other types of plans. They also have a narrower range of investment options, as mentioned earlier.

Making Changes to Your 403(b) Plan

If a situation arises that requires you to make changes to your 403(b), such as contributing less from your paychecks to the plan, it is possible to do so.

When Life Changes: Adjusting Your 403(b) Contributions

You can adjust your contributions to a 403(b). Check with your employer to find out if they have any rules or guidelines for when and how often you can make changes to your contributions, and then get the paperwork you’ll need to fill out to do so.

Plan Termination: Understanding the Process and Implications

An employer has the right to terminate a 403(b), but they’re required to distribute all accumulated benefits to employees and beneficiaries “as soon as administratively feasible.”

Employees may be eligible to roll their 403(b) funds over into a new retirement fund upon termination.

Loans, Distributions, and Withdrawals from 403(b) Plans

Here’s information about taking money out of your 403(b), whether it’s a loan or a withdrawal.

Borrowing from Your 403(b): What You Need to Know

There are rules that limit how and when an account holder can access funds in a 403(b) account. Generally, employees can’t take distributions, without penalties, from their 403(b) plan until they reach age 59 ½.

However, some 403(b) plans do allow loans and hardship distributions. Loan rules vary by the plan. Hardship distributions require the employee to demonstrate immediate and heavy financial need to avoid the typical early withdrawal penalty. Check with your employer to find out the particulars of your plan.

Taking Distributions: The When and How

Like other retirement plans, 403(b)s have limits on how and when participants can take distributions. Generally, account holders cannot touch the funds until they reach age 59 1/2 without paying taxes and a penalty of 10%. Furthermore, required minimum distributions, or RMDs, apply to 403(b) plans and kick in at age 73.

If you leave your job, you can keep your 403(b) where it is, or roll it over to another retirement account, such as an IRA or a retirement plan with your new employer.

Maximizing Your 403(b) Plan

If you have a 403(b), the amount you contribute to the plan could potentially help you grow your savings. Here’s how.

Strategic Contribution Planning: How to Maximize Growth

If your employer offers a match on contributions to your 403(b), you should aim to contribute at least enough to get the full match. Not doing so is like leaving free money on the table.

Beyond that, many financial advisors suggest aiming to contribute at least 10% of your income for retirement. You may be able to save less if you have access to guaranteed retirement income such as a pension, as many teachers do, but consider all your options carefully before deciding.

If 10% seems like an unreachable goal, contribute what you can, and then consider increasing the amount that you save each time you get a raise. That way, the higher contribution will not put as much of a dent in your take-home pay.

Doing some calculations to figure out how much you need to save and when you can retire can help you determine the best amount of save.

The Takeaway

If you work for a nonprofit employer, contributing to a 403(b) is a tax-efficient way to start saving for retirement. The earlier you can start saving for retirement, the more time your money can have to grow.

If your employer does not offer a 403(b), or if you’re interested in additional ways to save or invest for retirement, you may want to consider opening another tax-advantaged retirement savings account such as an IRA to help you reach your financial goals.

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