403(b) Plans: What You Need to Know

A 403(b) plan is a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k) plan, offered by many nonprofit employers.

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Updated May 13, 2024
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If you work for a nonprofit, such as a governmental organization, charitable organization, or school district, you might have a 403(b) plan instead of a 401(k). What is a 403(b) plan? And are you missing out by not having a 401(k)?

Learn how a 403(b) works and its pros and cons so you can make an informed choice about your retirement planning.

In this article

What is a 403(b)?

A 403(b) plan is a defined contribution retirement savings plan offered by many schools and other nonprofit organizations. A defined contribution retirement plan is one where you contribute a portion of your pay to the plan to build a retirement fund.

A 403(b) is similar to a 401(k) plan in many respects. For example, if you’re an employee of an organization that sponsors a 403(b), your contributions can be deducted directly from your pay. These contributions are made pre-tax, and you pay taxes at your ordinary income tax rate when you withdraw the funds later on. Your contributions lower your taxable income. 403(b) plans are also known as tax-sheltered annuities or TSA plans.

A 403(b) usually offers a menu of mutual funds or other investment options similar to what you might see in a 401(k) plan. The investment menus of 403(b) plans are usually narrower than with a typical 401(k) plan, however. A 403(b) plan could be a key tool in saving for retirement. Sponsoring organizations can offer both a traditional 403(b) and Roth 403(b) if they choose.

What is a Roth 403(b)?

Similar to a Roth 401(k), a Roth 403(b) option allows employees to make contributions on an after-tax basis. The money in a Roth 403(b) plan could then be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free if certain requirements, such as reaching age 59 1/2 and satisfying the five-year rule, are met. The five-year rule is that it has to be five years since your first contribution to a Roth 403(b) before you can make a penalty-free withdrawal.

A Roth 403(b) differs from a traditional 403(b) where contributions are generally made on a pre-tax basis, with distributions taxed as ordinary income. Also, as with a Roth 401(k), any matching contributions from the employer are deposited into a traditional 403(b) account per the rules governing these plans.

Balances in a Roth 403(b) would be subject to required minimum distributions, the same as with a Roth 401(k). A required minimum distribution, or RMD, is a set minimum amount you’re required to withdraw from certain retirement accounts starting at age 72. To avoid an RMD on a Roth 403(b), consider rolling your Roth 403(b) balance over to a Roth IRA.

How does a 403(b) work?

403(b) plans are funded by employee contributions. The IRS sets annual contribution limits for 403(b)s, which are the same as for a 401(k) plan. For 2024, the total contribution limits are $23,000 plus a $7,500 catch-up contribution for those who are age 50 or older. If an employee has worked for their organization for at least 15 years, or they meet other requirements, they may be eligible to contribute an additional $3,000 annually for up to five years.

Some 403(b) sponsors may choose to make matching contributions, but this will vary from organization to organization.

Vesting is another important consideration when it comes to retirement plans like 403(b)s. Vesting refers to your ability to take any employer contributions made to the plan on your behalf when you leave your employer. For example, your employer might require you to be employed for one year before your employer’s 403(b) contributions are vested. If you leave that employer before you’re vested, you’ll only be able to roll over your contributions to another account like an IRA or a new employer’s 403(b). You won’t be able to take any employer contributions.

Vesting periods for 403(b) plans are sometimes shorter than vesting periods for a 401(k) plan, but again, this will vary from plan to plan.

You can also designate one or more beneficiaries who would receive your account benefits if you die

How do you withdraw funds from a 403(b)?

Withdrawals from the 403(b) plan would be made by contacting the plan administrator or the human resources department of the employer offering the plan. Each plan will have its own process for completing paperwork for the withdrawal, and many will offer the ability to do this online as well.

For a traditional 403(b), there is generally an early withdrawal tax penalty for withdrawals made prior to age 59 1/2. There are some exceptions to this, such as the need to cover a large medical expense. It is best to contact the plan administrator to see exactly what qualifies as an exception. Distributions from a traditional 403(b) are fully taxable.

Withdrawals from a Roth 403(b) are generally tax-free if you’ve satisfied the five-year rule and are at least age 59 1/2. There are exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty under certain circumstances.

When leaving your employer, you can generally roll the balance in your account over to an individual retirement account, or in some cases, to a retirement plan with a new employer. Rolling the balance over keeps the tax-advantaged nature of the account intact and allows you to defer any taxes that would be due if you withdrew money from the plan.

Pros and cons of a 403(b)

Pros Cons
Tax advantages Fewer investment options
High annual contribution limits Higher fees
Shorter vesting schedules Not always covered by ERISA
Extra catch-up contributions

Pros

  • A 403(b) plan offers several tax advantages. First, a traditional 403(b) option offers the ability to make pre-tax contributions, which provides an immediate tax break in the year the contributions are made. Money contributed to a traditional 403(b) account grows tax-deferred until withdrawn. Plans that offer a Roth option provide a different type of tax advantage. Although Roth contributions are made with after-tax dollars, the contributions grow tax-free. Withdrawals are tax-free if made after you reach age 59 1/2 and if certain other requirements are met.
  • As with 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans offer higher contribution rates than many other types of retirement plans. For 2024, the contribution limit is $23,000, with an additional $7,500 contribution limit for those who are age 50 or older.
  • There are different types of vesting and vesting schedules vary from plan to plan, but generally, 403(b) plans often have shorter vesting schedules than 401(k) plans.
  • Long-tenured employees covered by a 403(b) plan have the ability to make additional catch-up contributions. If their plan allows for it, they could contribute an extra $3,000 annually over and above the normal contribution limits, including the regular catch-up contributions. The “15-year rule” allows employees who have been with the employer offering the plan for at least 15 years to contribute $3,000 annually over a five-year period.

Cons

  • 403(b) plans tend to offer more limited investment menus than 401(k) plans and certainly more limited than IRAs.
  • Due to the investments sometimes offered in a 403(b), in many cases the underlying fees and expenses are higher than with a 401(k) or other types of plans. This is especially true with 403(b) plans that primarily offer annuities and insurance-based investment choices that tend to be more expensive than investment options, such as mutual funds.
  • Some 403(b) plans are not covered by the Department of Labor’s Employee Retirement Income Security Act rules and fiduciary standards. 401(k) plans are covered by ERISA rules. The disadvantage here is that plans covered by ERISA must abide by rules put in place by the Department of Labor that offer a level of protection to plan participants. Non-ERISA 403(b) plans are not obligated to abide by these rules.

FAQs

Is a 403(b) better than a 401(k)?

Whether a 403(b) is better than a 401(k) depends on the particular 401(k) or 403(b) plan. Characteristics of both types of plans vary widely from plan to plan. You will want to look at the investments offered by any plan that you have access to through an employer, including the expenses associated with those investments.

Can you lose money in a 403(b)?

You could lose money in a 403(b) plan. Whether you lose money or make money on your investments in the plan will depend upon the investment choices you make and how the stock market and other financial markets perform.

A 403(b) plan is a defined contribution plan just like a 401(k) plan. This means that how well your account performs totally depends on how you choose to invest the money in your plan account, and how well those investments perform.

What is the difference between a 401(k) and a 403(b)?

There are several differences between a 401(k) plan and a 403(b) plan, including:

  • Nonprofits, public sector employers, governmental entities, and other tax-exempt organizations are the only types of employers who can offer a 403(b). Some of these types of organizations could also offer a 401(k), but not the other way around. Private-sector employers are limited to offering a 401(k).
  • Both types of plans allow a $6,500 catch-up contribution for participants who are 50 or over. Some 403(b) plans offer the opportunity to contribute an extra $3,000 per year for five years if the participant has at least 15 years of service for the employer.
  • Employer matching is fairly common with 401(k) plans; it is less common with 403(b) plans.
  • Many sponsors of 401(k) plans make profit-sharing contributions into participants' accounts. Profit-sharing contributions are not allowed in a 403(b) as the sponsoring employers are not-for-profit entities.
  • A 401(k) plan is subject to the rules and regulations of ERISA as administered by the Department of Labor. ERISA has a number of rules governing how 401(k) plans are run and administered. Many 403(b) plans are not subject to ERISA.
  • Fees are often higher with a 403(b) than with a 401(K). This is often due to the nature of the investments offered by the 403(b).

Bottom line

If you work for an employer who offers a 403(b), review the plan carefully regarding the investments offered, the plan expenses, and other factors involved with the plan. Even if the plan has some shortcomings, it still might be a good idea to contribute at least some money, especially if your employer offers a matching contribution. Check out this article to learn more about the pros and cons of 403(b) plans.

Author Details

Roger Wohlner

In addition to his bylined articles on sites like TheStreet, ThinkAdvisor, and Investopedia, Roger ghostwrites extensively for financial advisors, investment managers, and financial services companies.