What Is a Salary Reduction Contribution Plan?

By Mike Zaccardi, CMT, CFA · February 08, 2024 · 9 minute read

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What Is a Salary Reduction Contribution Plan?

A salary reduction contribution plan allows employees to reduce their taxable income by investing for retirement. With this type of plan, an employee’s salary isn’t really reduced; rather the employer deducts a percentage of their salary and deposits the funds in a retirement savings plan where the money can grow tax deferred.

Common employer-sponsored retirement plans include 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and SIMPLE IRAs. Employee contributions — also called elective deferral contributions — are typically made with pre-tax money, effectively reducing the participant’s taxable income and often lowering their tax bill. Some plans feature an after-tax Roth contribution option, too.

You may already be contributing to a salary reduction contribution plan, although your company may not call it that. These plans can be a valuable way to boost your retirement savings, and offer you a tax break. Here’s what you need to know.

Salary Reduction Contribution Plans Explained

A salary reduction contribution plan helps workers save and invest for retirement through their employer via several types of retirement accounts. Money is typically deposited in a retirement account such as a 401(k), 403(b), or SIMPLE IRA on a pre-tax basis through recurring deferrals (aka contributions) on behalf of the employee.

Employees typically select the percentage they wish to deposit, e.g. 3%, 10%, or more. That percentage is deducted from an employee’s paycheck automatically, and deposited in their retirement account. Sometimes a specific dollar amount is established as the salary reduction contribution amount.

The upshot for the worker is that they can delay paying taxes on the amount of the salary reduction for many years, until they withdraw money from the account during retirement. Like a traditional 401(k) or 403(b), these accounts can be tax deferred; Roth options are considered after tax (because you deposit after-tax funds, but pay no tax on withdrawals). Retirement contributions may offer decades of compounded investment returns without taxation. Essentially, retirement contributions through an employer’s plan means saving money from your salary.

There are also SIMPLE IRA salary reduction agreements sometimes offered by small businesses with 100 or fewer employees: “SIMPLE” is short for “Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees.”

A Salary Reduction Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SARSEP), on the other hand, is a simplified employee pension plan established before 1997.

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How Salary Reduction Contribution Plans Work

Salary reduction contribution plans are established between a worker and their employer. The two parties agree to have a set percentage or a dollar amount taken from the employee’s salary and deposited into a tax-advantaged retirement plan. That money can then be invested in stock or bond mutual funds, or other investments offered by the plan.

With pre-tax contributions, the employee has a reduced paycheck but gets current-year tax savings. With after-tax contributions, as in a Roth account, taxes are paid today while the account can potentially grow tax-free through retirement; withdrawals from a Roth account are tax free.

Example of a Salary Reduction Contribution Plan

Here’s an example of how a salary reduction contribution plan agreement might work:

Let’s say an employee at a university has a $100,000 salary and wishes to save 10% of their pay in a pre-tax retirement account. The school has a 403(b) plan in place. The worker contacts their Human Resources department to ask about submitting a salary reduction agreement form. On the form, the worker chooses an amount of their salary to defer into the 403(b) plan (10%).

Typically they also select investments from a lineup of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

Come payday, the employee’s paycheck will look different. If the usual biweekly gross earnings amount is $3,846 ($100,000 salary divided by 26 pay periods, per year), then $384.60, or 10% of earnings, is deducted from the employee’s paycheck and deposited into the 403(b) and invested, assuming the employee has selected their desired investment options.

Depending on other deductions, the employee’s new taxable income might be $3,461.40. The contribution effectively reduced the worker’s salary, potentially lowering their tax bill at the end of the year.

If the worker is in the 22% marginal income tax bracket, the $10,000 annual deferral amounts to an annual federal income tax savings of $2,200 per year.

Bear in mind that withdrawals from the 403(b) plan are taxable with pre-tax salary reductions. We’ll look at salary reduction plan withdrawal rules later.

Pros & Cons of Salary Reduction Contribution Plans

Although your employer may offer a salary reduction contribution plan like a 401(k) or SIMPLE IRA salary reduction agreement for retirement, it’s not required to participate. Before deciding whether you want to join your organization’s plan, here are some advantages and disadvantages to consider.

Pros

A salary reduction contribution offers employees the chance to reduce their current-year taxable income. A lower salary defers taxation on the money you save, until retirement. For young workers, that could mean decades of compounding returns without having to pay taxes along the way.

For those who have the option of choosing a Roth account, taxes are paid in the current year, but withdrawals are tax free (as long as certain criteria are met). Also, contributions to a Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b) plan can grow tax-free through retirement.

What’s more, the employer might offer their own contribution such as a matching contribution. Typically, an employer might match employees’ contributions up to a certain amount: e.g. they’ll match 50 cents for every dollar an employee saves, up to 6% of their salary.

Another upside is that lowering one’s salary through automated savings can help an individual live on less money and avoid spending beyond their means — which may help establish long-term savings habits. Thus, contributing to a salary reduction plan can be a step toward creating a financial plan.

Cons

Like many aspects of personal finance, salary reduction contributions can be a balancing act between meeting your obligations today and providing for your future self.

Saving for the future can mean forgoing some pleasure in the present, similar to the concept of delayed gratification. Maybe you decide to postpone a vacation or purchase of a new car in exchange for a more robust retirement account balance.

Employees should also weigh the likelihood of needing money in the event of an emergency. Taking early withdrawals or borrowing from your 401(k) account can be costly, or may come with penalties, versus having extra cash in a checking or savings account. In most cases if you take out a loan from an employer-sponsored plan, you would have to repay the loan in full if you left your job.

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Salary Reduction Contribution Limits

Annual salary reduction contribution limits can change each year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) determines the yearly maximum contribution amount. For 2024, the most a worker can contribute to a 401(k) or 403(b) is $23,000. For those age 50 and older, an additional $7,500 contribution is permitted.

In 2023, a worker can contribute up to $22,500 to a 401(k) or 403(b), and those 50 and older can contribute an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions.

A SIMPLE IRA salary reduction agreement has different limits. For 2024, a SIMPLE IRA’s annual maximum contribution is $16,000 with a catch-up contribution of up to $3,500 for those age 50 and older. For 2023, the annual maximum SIMPLE IRA contribution limit is $15,500 and $3,500 for those 50 and up.

Salary Reduction Contribution Plan Withdrawal Rules

There are many rules regarding salary reduction contribution plan withdrawals.

At a high level, when an employee withdraws money from a tax-deferred retirement account, they will owe income tax on the money. If you withdraw money before age 59 ½, a 10% early-withdrawal tax might be applied.

There can be some exceptions to these rules, but it’s best to consult with a professional.

Should you withdraw money when you leave your employer? While taking a lump sum is possible under those circumstances, it may not be your best choice: You’d owe taxes on the full amount, and you’d risk spending money that’s meant to support you when you’re older.

The standard rule of thumb is that individuals who are leaving one employer should consider rolling over their retirement account to an IRA, or their new employer’s plan. In that case there are no penalties or taxes owed, and the money is once again secured for the future.

The Takeaway

Salary reduction contribution plans can help workers save money for retirement on a pre-tax or after-tax basis. Steadily putting money to work for your future is a major step toward building a solid long-term financial plan. And in many cases you will reap a tax advantage in the present — or in the future.

That said, there are important pros and cons to weigh when deciding whether you should contribute via a salary reduction plan. You may have another strategy. But if you don’t, you might want to consider opting into your employer’s plan for the benefits it can provide.

An important point to know: Even when you join a salary reduction plan, you can still open up an IRA to boost your savings. And if you leave your job, you can roll over your salary reduction retirement account to an IRA without paying taxes or penalties.

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FAQ

Does a 401(k) reduce salary?

Not really. Contributions toward a traditional 401(k) retirement plan are a tax-deductible form of savings that effectively reduce an individual’s taxable income. In that regard, making retirement contributions on a pre-tax basis can reduce someone’s salary (but you still have the money in your retirement account).

Also, some plans allow for after-tax contributions which also reduce the size of your paycheck, but are not tax deductible.

What does employee salary reduction mean?

Employee salary reduction means that money is automatically deducted from an employee’s paycheck and contributed to a retirement plan. Money moves into a plan such as a 401(k), 403(b), or a SIMPLE IRA. The account is in the employee’s name, and they decide how to invest the funds.

What is the difference between SEP and SARSEP?

A SEP is known as a Simplified Employee Pension Plan. A SEP plan allows employers to contribute to traditional IRAs (called SEP IRAs) for their employees. The IRS states that a business of any size, even self-employed, can establish a SEP. These plans are common in the small business world.

A SARSEP, on the other hand, is a simplified employee pension plan established before 1997. A SARSEP includes a salary reduction arrangement. The employee can choose to have the employer contribute a portion of their salary to an IRA or annuity. Per the IRS, a SARSEP may not be established after 1996.


Photo credit: iStock/visualspace

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