Default Deferral Rate 401(k) Explained

By Rebecca Lake · February 08, 2024 · 6 minute read

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Default Deferral Rate 401(k) Explained

Your 401(k) deferral rate is the amount that you contribute to the plan via your paychecks. Many companies have a default deferral rate on 401(k) plans, in which they automatically direct a certain amount of your paycheck to your 401(k) plan. This occurs automatically, unless you opt out of participation or select a higher default rate.

The default deferral rate on 401(k) plans varies from one plan to another (and not all plans have a default rate), though the most common rate is 7%. If you’re currently saving in a 401(k) plan or will soon enroll in your employer’s plan, it’s important to understand how automatic contributions work.

What Is a 401(k) Deferral Rate?

A deferral rate is the percentage of salary contributed to a 401(k) plan or a similar qualified plan each pay period. Each 401(k) plan can establish a default deferral percentage, which represents the minimum amount that employees automatically contribute, unless they opt out of the plan.

For example, someone making a $50,000 annual salary would automatically contribute a minimum of $1,500 per year to their plan if it had a 3% automatic deferral rate.

Employees can choose not to participate in the plan, or they can contribute more than the minimum deferral percentage set by their plan. They may choose to contribute 10%, 15% or more of their salary into the plan each year, and receive a tax benefit up to the annual limit. Again, the more of your income you defer into the plan, the larger your retirement nest egg may be later.

There are several benefits associated with changing your 401(k) contributions to maximize 401(k) salary deferrals, including:

•   Reducing taxable income if you’re contributing pre-tax dollars

•   Getting the full employer matching contribution

•   Qualifying for the retirement saver’s credit

If you qualify, the Saver’s Credit is worth up to $1,000 for single filers or $2,000 for married couples filing jointly. This credit can be used to reduce your tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

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Average Deferral Rate

Studies have shown that more employers are leaning toward the higher end of the scale when setting the default deferral rate. According to research from the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA), for instance, 32.9% of employers use an automatic default deferral rate of 6% versus 29% that set the default percentage at 3%.

In terms of employer matching contributions, a recent survey from the PSCA found that 96% of employers offer some level of match. The most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor suggests that the average employer match works out to around 3.5%. Again, it’s important to remember that not every employer offers this free money to employees who enroll in the company’s 401(k).

Research shows that higher default rates result in higher overall retirement savings for participants.

What Is the Actual Deferral Percentage Test?

The actual deferral percentage (ADP) test is one of two nondiscrimination tests employers must apply to ensure that employees who contribute to a 401(k) receive equal treatment, as required by federal regulations. The ADP test counts elective deferrals of highly compensated employees and non-highly compensated employees to determine proportionality. A 401(k) plan passes the ADP test if the actual deferral percentage for highly compensated employees doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the ADP for non-highly compensated employees, or the lesser of

•   200% of the ADP for non-highly compensated employees or the ADP for those employees plus 2%

If a company fails the ADP test or the second nondiscrimination test, known as actual contribution percentage, then it has to remedy that to avoid an IRS penalty. This can mean making contributions to the plan on behalf of non-highly compensated employees.

How Much Should I Contribute to Retirement?

If you’re ready to start saving for retirement, using your employer’s 401(k), one of the most important steps is determining your personal deferral rate. The appropriate deferral percentage can depend on several things, including:

•   How much you want to save for retirement total

•   Your current age and when you plan to retire

•   What you can realistically afford to contribute, based on your current income and expenses

A typical rule of thumb suggested by financial specialists is to save at least 15% of your gross income toward retirement each year. So if you’re making $100,000 a year before taxes, you’d save $15,000 in your 401(k) following this rule. But it’s important to consider whether you can afford to defer that much into the plan.

Using a 401(k) calculator or retirement savings calculator can help you to get a better idea of how much you need to save each year to reach your goals, based on where you’re starting from right now. As a general rule, the younger you are when starting to invest for retirement the better, as you have more time to take advantage of the power of compounding returns.

If you don’t have a 401(k), you can still save for retirement through an individual retirement account (IRA) and set up automatic deposits to mimic paycheck deferrals and give you the benefit of dollar-cost averaging.

Contribution Limits

It’s important to keep in mind that there are annual contribution limits for 401(k) plans. These limits determine how much of your income you can defer in any given year and are established by the IRS. The IRS adjusts annual contribution limits periodically to account for inflation.

For 2023, employees are allowed to contribute $22,500 to their 401(k) plans. An additional catch-up contribution of $7,500 is allowed for employees aged 50 or older. That means older workers may be eligible to make a total contribution of $30,000.

For 2024, employees can contribute $23,000 to their 4091(k), and those 50 and older can make an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500.

The total annual 2023 contribution limit for 401(k) plans, including both employee and employer matching contributions, is $66,000. For 2024, the total annual contribution limit is $69,000.

The money that you contribute to the 401(k) is yours, but you might not own the contributions from your employer until a certain period of time has passed, if your plan uses a 401(k) vesting schedule.

You’re not required to max out the annual contribution limit and employers are not required to offer a match. But the more of your salary you defer to the plan and the bigger the matching contribution, the more money you could end up with once you’re ready to retire.

The Takeaway

Contributing to a 401(k) can be one of the most effective ways to save for retirement but it’s not your only option. If you don’t have a 401(k) at work or you want to supplement your salary deferrals, you can also save using an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

An IRA allows you to set aside money for the future while snagging some tax breaks. With a traditional IRA, your contributions may be tax-deductible. A Roth IRA, meanwhile, allows for tax-free distributions in retirement.

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What is a good deferral rate for 401(k)?

A good deferral rate for 401(k) contributions is one that allows you to qualify for the full employer match if one is offered, at a minimum. The more money you defer into your plan, the more opportunity you have to grow wealth for retirement.

What is an automatic deferral?

An automatic deferral is a deferral of salary into a 401(k) plan or similar qualified plan through paycheck deductions. Your employer automatically redirects money from your paycheck into your retirement account.

What is the maximum default automatic enrollment deferral rate?

This depends on your employer. Some employers may set the threshold higher to allow employees to make better use of the plan.

Photo credit: iStock/guvendemir

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