403b Plan Complete Guide

For those that work in higher ed, their 403b plan is often the largest pool of retirement assets they own.  It’s no surprise, either.  A huge perk to working in higher education are generous retirement plan contributions from the institutions.  

It’s not uncommon for a college or university to contribute 10% or more of an employee’s salary into his/her 403b plan.  This level of contribution is unheard of outside of higher ed.  Thus, higher ed employees can build up significant retirement assets over the course of their careers.  It is important to know how your 403b works.  That said, I have found that many do not understand the ins and outs of their 403b.  Let’s change that.

What is a 403b Plan?

A 403b plan is a tax deferred employer retirement plan.  They are similar to 401k plans, except they’re only available to 501(c)(3) organizations. These include educational institutions, state agencies, and charities.  These plans are a benefit to help employees build retirement assets.  Accounts are individual and contributions are made by the employee, the employer, or both.  The name 403b comes from the IRS code that regulates it.


Contributions to a 403b plan are typically made pre-tax.  You set this up through a salary deferral agreement with your HR office.  Your contributions lower your taxable income dollar for dollar in the year of the contribution.  All growth in the account is tax-deferred.  You won’t pay any taxes until you withdraw the funds at a later date.  This helps you accumulate wealth quickly because Uncle Sam isn’t eating into your account each year.  Depending on the plan, contributions can also be made with after-tax money as Roth contributions.  These contributions do not lower your taxable income but do grow tax-deferred.  Roth contributions have unique tax benefits (covered later).

There are limits to how much you can contribute to your plan in any given year.  The IRS adjusts the limits over time for cost of living increases.

Contribution Limits

If you are under age 50, the max an employee can contribute is $18,000.

If you are over age 50, the IRS allows for employees to use “catch up” contributions.  In 2016 and 2017, the catch up amount allowable is $6,000.  This makes your maximum contribution limit $24,000.

Your employee and employer contributions combined cannot exceed $54,000.  It is rare for this limit to come into play but it is still important to know.

Another item to be aware of is the 15-Year Rule.  Employees with 15 years of service with their current employer and an annual average contribution of less than $5,000 per year are eligible for an additional $3,000 contribution per year.  These extra contributions are limited to $15,000 over your lifetime.   Employers are not required to make the 15-Year Rule available.

Employer Contributions 

Employer contributions typically occur in one of two ways.  The most common that I have seen in higher ed is a flat percentage that the school contributes on your behalf.  I have seen the percentage range anywhere from 8-11%.  The other way contributions happen are through a match.  For example, some schools will match the amount you contribute dollar for dollar up to a certain percent.  This percentage is usually somewhere between 3-6%.


When you decide to withdraw funds from your 403b, you must make sure that the withdrawal is a permissible distribution.  Per the IRS, permissible distributions are when an employee:

  • Reaches age 59 ½
  • Has a severance from employment;
  • Dies;
  • Becomes disabled;
  • In the case of elective deferrals, encounters financial hardship; or
  • Has a qualified reservist distribution

Upon withdrawal, pre-tax contributions are taxed at ordinary income rates.  If your distribution is not permissible, you will pay ordinary income tax AND will incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty.  There are a few hardship provisions in which you can avoid the penalty even though you are under 59 ½.

If your withdrawal is permissible and involves after-tax (or “Roth”) contributions, then you are not taxed at all.  Roth contributions grow tax-deferred and distributions are completely tax-free.  With an impermissible Roth distribution, the contribution portion still comes out tax-free.  The earnings are taxable and penalized at 10%.  A caveat, your first Roth 403b contribution must be 5 years old before any of your Roth contributions are permissible.

How To Invest Your 403b

There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Every investor has different goals.  I have found that many employees haven’t changed their plan since the day they signed up.  They have stuck with the default option, often to the detriment of growth.  It’s important to do research or to work with a professional to help you decide how to invest your 403b assets.  A sound financial plan ensures that your risk tolerance aligns with a diversified mix of assets to help you pursue your goals.  It is also important to have an investment policy across all household accounts.  A comprehensive approach can increase efficiency when you have many moving parts.  (For more: Professors Ask, “How Should I Invest My 403(b))

Advantages of 403bs

#1. Reduces taxable income 

Your employee contributions lower your taxable income.  This is a win/win because you are growing a nest egg for retirement while lowering your tax bill for the year.

#2. Tax deferral 

The tax deferred growth of your assets help you accumulate wealth quickly.  In a taxable account, there are times when you will owe Uncle Sam at tax time, slowing the growth of your account.  In a tax deferred account, those assets stay invested and benefit from compound interest.

#3. Higher contribution limits

Traditional and Roth IRAs have lower contribution limits.  For IRAs, the max you can contribute in a year is $5,500 (if under 50, $6,000 if over 50).  Your 403b contribution limit is over three times that amount.  This higher amount can help you build wealth faster.

#4. Loans

Many 403b plans allow you to take loans.  I do not encourage taking funds out of a plan for anything other than retirement, but it is available in the instance that you need access to capital.  Plan loans, if allowed, are generally limited to 50% of your account balance or $50,000, whichever is less.  You normally must pay the loans back within five years, with interest.

#5. Portability 

A professor once told me, “the way to move up is to move out.”  If you have worked for different institutions over the years, you may have several 403b accounts.  Consolidating these accounts makes managing your money much easier.  When changing positions, 403bs can roll into an IRA or transfer to your new 403b plan.

Disadvantages of 403bs

#1. Limited investment options 

Not all plans are created equal.  Some 403bs have many different asset classes available with low-cost, strong-performing funds.  Others have limited options.  It isn’t uncommon for a plan to offer 12-15 funds total.  Plans with limited options don’t always offer access to an asset class you want to invest in.  The glaring weakness I often find is with the fixed income (bond) offerings.

#2. Annuities

Many 403b plans still offer their funds through an annuity chassis.  Problem is, it is rare for someone to ever choose to annuitize their plan upon retiring.  What this means is that investors are paying extra fees for something that they will never end up using.  Also, these annuities make it difficult to access your funds in many situations.

#3. Lack of comprehensive advice 

The big players in the higher ed 403b space are TIAA and Fidelity.  One thing they don’t do well is offer comprehensive advice.  It’s not their business model.  I believe that everyone should have a comprehensive plan that helps get their financial house in order.  Your 403b is just one piece of your financial puzzle.

#4. Service

Another area that is lacking in these plans is customer service.  I have met with many employees who haven’t met with anyone since opening their account.  In some instances, this has been 5-10 years or more.  The model is to send a sign up sheet around and the employees can choose to meet or not.  Not good enough!  If the vast amount of a household’s wealth is in this plan, shouldn’t you receive more proactive service?

#5. RMDs 

Like other qualified plans, 403bs are subject to required minimum distributions.  When you turn 70 ½, you must begin taking distributions, whether you want to or not.  The amount you must take will increase each year.  RMD amounts are based on the previous year’s ending balance and your current age.  Uncle Sam wants his money!

I hope this guide helps.  I want to reiterate that the best way to get your financial house in order is through comprehensive planning.  Your 403b is just one aspect of your financial life.  If you don’t have a comprehensive financial plan, I urge you to take action as soon as possible.  Happy investing!

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