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What Is a 403(b)?

A 403(b) is a tax-advantaged retirement plan available to many of America’s public employees, employees of universities and hospitals, religious leaders and workers at non-governmental organizations. Like a 401(k), a 403(b) comprises contributions that aren’t taxed right away. The contributions grow in a tax-deferred plan, with taxes paid upon withdrawal.

What Is a 403(b) Plan?

A 403(b) is also known as a tax-sheltered annuity (TSA). It’s like a 401(k), but for public and non-profit institutions rather than private companies. For some employees, participation in a 403(b) is mandatory, while for others it’s optional.

Contributions to a 403(b) plan are usually taken from your wages before taxes. The money that goes into your account won’t hit ever hit your bank account (meaning you won’t be tempted to spend it). This is known as an “elective salary deferral.” The upside to these pre-tax contributions is that it lowers your taxable income, which means you’re paying less in taxes at the same time you’re saving for retirement. You will, however, have to pay taxes once you start withdrawing your funds.

How Does It Work?

What Is a 403(b)?

Those who enroll and make voluntary contributions can choose to invest their contributions in either annuities or mutual funds. Mutual funds are “baskets” of securities, potentially including stocks, bonds and money market holdings, and charge fees (and sometimes commissions) to investors. Annuities come in a few different flavors: fixed, equity indexed and variable. The name of the annuity tells you how the interest rate works. Your money will grow according to either a fixed interest rate; an equity-indexed rate tied to the overall stock market; or, in the case of a variable annuity, to the performance of individual investments.

If you participate in a 403(b), make sure to opt for a low-fee plan. Fees can eat into your retirement savings – to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

IRS rules for 2019 dictate that elective deferrals for an employee under age 50 can’t top $19,000. Over 50? You can make extra catch-up contributions of up to $6,000 this year.

Employers may also make contributions to your 403(b) account.. These are known as “nonelective employer contributions.” If you contribute to a 403(b) via elective deferrals and you get employer contributions, the total can’t exceed the lesser of either $56,000 or 100% of the previous year’s wages and benefits in 2019.

403(b) Withdrawal Rules

Withdrawals from your 403(b) account will be taxed as regular income at the federal level. Some states treat it as regular income, while in some states all or part of it is exempt — and some state don’t tax income at all. 403(b) accounts come with rules restricting when you can withdraw funds.This means that they’re not a good place to stash your emergency fund – or, for that matter, any money that you think you’ll need before retirement. With certain exceptions, taking distributions from your 403(b) before you hit age 59 1/2 will cost you a 10% penalty. What are those exceptions?

  • If you separate from your employer, you can roll over the funds in your 403(b).
  • If you die, your beneficiary can access your contributions.
  • If you encounter financial hardship, you may be able to make a withdrawal (in this case, you may only access elective deferrals taken from your pay, not contributions made by your employer).
  • If you are in the reserves and get called up, you may be eligible for what’s called a qualified reservist distribution.
  • If you become disabled you can make a withdrawal.

403(b) Contribution Limits

For 2019, IRS contribution limits on 403(b) contributions are as follows:

  • For an employee’s elective salary deferrals, the limit is $19,000.
  • For total contributions, including salary deferrals and employer matching, the limit is the lesser of either $55,000 or 100% of employee compensation.
  • Employees age 50 or over can make catch-up contributions of up to $6,000 on top of the regular limit.

The Roth 403(b)

What Is a 403(b)?

A Roth 403(b) has similar attributes to the Roth IRA. You fund it with after-tax dollars, which means you don’t lower your taxable income, but the upside is that you don’t pay taxes on the money that you withdraw in retirement. Not everyone who has the option to contribute to a 403(b) has the option to choose a Roth 403(b). If you do have the choice between a regular and a Roth 403(b), how do you choose?

As with the IRA vs. Roth IRA debate, it’s a question of your tax bracket. If you think your tax bracket is higher now than it will be in retirement, it pays to save for retirement with pre-tax dollars. That means taking advantage of a regular 403(b). By doing so, you’re reducing your taxable income, which means you may owe less to Uncle Sam this year.

If, on the other hand, you think your income and tax bracket will be higher in retirement, you should probably go for a Roth 403(b). You’ll reduce the tax burden you’ll face in your post-work years. You also won’t pay taxes on the (possibly substantial) growth of your investments.

Roth 403(b) vs. Roth IRA

What about the choice between funding a Roth 403(b) and a Roth IRA? If they both use after-tax contributions, what’s the difference? Well, Roth 403(b)s have higher contribution limits than Roth IRAs ($19,000 vs. $6,000), so if you’re a savvy saver you may be better off with a Roth 403(b). Plus, people with high incomes aren’t eligible to contribute to Roth IRAs.

On the other hand, if you decide to open a Roth IRA instead of a 403(b), you won’t be limited to the investments available through your employer. You may find a Roth IRA option on the open market that has lower fees than any of the Roth 403(b)s you have to choose from. In that case, you may want to go with the Roth IRA if it meets your savings needs.

The Takeaway

The ability to contribute income to a 403(b) is a valuable employee benefit available to some public employees. The trick is a) choosing an amount for your elective deferrals that will help you save enough for retirement and b) choosing a low-fee investment vehicle for your contributions.

Tips for Getting Retirement Ready

  • Figure out how much you’ll need to save in order to retire comfortably using our retirement calculator. An easy way to get ahead on saving for retirement is by taking advantage of employer 401(k) matching.
  • Working with a financial advisor can be a huge help in determining your retirement needs and investing your savings to get you there. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/CatLane, ©iStock.com/Mlenny, ©iStock.com/AndreyPopov

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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