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If you have young children or are still building your career, retirement plans in the United States may not be the most interesting thing at this time in your life. But one day they will be.
To ensure you have a financially secure retirement, it’s wise to create a plan early in life, or right now if you haven’t already. For example, if you divert a portion of your paycheck to a tax-advantaged retirement savings plan, your wealth can grow exponentially to help you get the peace of mind you need for those so-called golden years.
Retirement benefits are so important that they should be a top consideration when looking for a new job. However, only about half of today’s employees understand the benefits offered to them; this according to a January 2019 survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
“The design of retirement plans in the United States is personalized, so one company’s benefit formula may not be as generous as others,” explains David Littell, tax professor and retirement planning expert. from the American College of Financial Services. “It is very important that you read the summary plan description that is provided to all participants so that you can understand the design of the plan.”
Table of Content
- Main benefits of the plan to consider
- The best retirement plans in the United States
- Defined contribution plans
- IRA plans
- 401(k) Solo Plan
- Guaranteed Income Annuities (GIA)
- Profit Sharing Plans
- The federal government plan
- Cash Balance Plans
- Cash Value Life Insurance Plan
- Nonqualified Deferred Compensation (NQDC) Plans
Top plan benefits to keep in mind
Virtually all retirement plans in the United States offer a tax advantage, whether it is available in advance, during the savings phase, or when withdrawals are being made.
For example, 401(k) contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, which reduces taxable income. Roth IRAs, by contrast, are funded with after-tax dollars, but withdrawals are tax-free.
Some retirement plans in the United States also include matching contributions from your employer, such as 401(k) plans, while others do not. When trying to decide whether to invest in a 401(k) at work or an individual retirement account (IRA), opt for the 401(k) if you get a company match, or do both if you can afford it.
If you were automatically enrolled in the 401(k) plan, verify that you are taking full advantage of the company contribution, if one is available. And consider increasing your annual contribution, since many retirement plans in the United States start with a negligible deferral level that isn’t enough to ensure retirement security. About half of 401(k) plans that offer automatic enrollment, according to Vanguard, use a default savings deferral rate of just 3 percent. However, T. Rowe Price says that you should “aim to save at least 15 percent of your income each year.”
If you are self-employed, several retirement plans are also available in the United States. In addition to the plans described below for basic workers and entrepreneurs, you can also invest in a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA, subject to certain income caps. These have smaller annual contribution limits than most other retirement plans in the United States.
The best retirement plans in the United States
Defined contribution plans
Since their introduction in the early 1980s, defined contribution (DC) plans, which include 401(k)s, have virtually taken over the retirement market. About 84% of Fortune 500 companies offer CD plans instead of traditional pensions.
The 401(k) plan is the most ubiquitous DC plan among employers of all sizes, while the similarly structured 403(b) plan is offered to employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations. The 457(b) plan is the most common for state and local governments.
The contribution limit for each plan is $19,500 in 2020 ($26,000 for those 50 and older).
Many DC (defined contribution) plans offer a Roth version, in which after-tax dollars are used to contribute, but the money can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement. “The Roth election makes sense if you expect your tax rate to be higher in retirement than it was at the time you made the contribution,” says Littell.
A 401(k) plan is a tax-advantaged plan that offers a way to save for retirement. An employee contributes to the plan with pre-tax wages, which means the contributions are not considered taxable income. The 401(k) plan allows these contributions to grow tax-free until withdrawn at retirement. Withdrawals are considered taxable earnings, however, withdrawals before age 59.5 may be subject to additional taxes and penalties.
Pros: A 401(k) plan can be an easy way to save for retirement, because you can set up to have your contribution deducted from your paycheck and invested automatically. The money can be put into a number of high-yield investments like stocks, and you won’t have to pay taxes on the gains until you withdraw the funds. Plus, many employers offer you a matching contribution, giving you free money (and automatic earnings) just for saving.
Disadvantages: A key disadvantage of 401(k) plans is that you may have to pay a penalty to access the money if you need it for an emergency. While many plans allow you to borrow from your funds for specific reasons, it’s not a guarantee that your employer’s fund will. Your investments are limited to the funds provided in your employer’s 401(k) program, so you may not be able to invest as much as you want.
What it means to you: A 401(k) plan is one of the best ways to save for retirement, and if you can get “match” money from your employer, you can save even faster.
A 403(b) plan is much like a 401(k) plan, typically offered by public schools, charities, and some churches, among others. The employee contributes pre-tax money to the plan, because contributions are not considered taxable income, and these funds can grow tax-free until retirement. At retirement, withdrawals create a taxable income, and distributions before age 59½ may trigger additional taxes and penalties.
Pros: A 403(b) is an effective and popular way to save for retirement, and you can set it up to have the money automatically deducted from your paycheck, helping you save more effectively. The money can be invested in various investments, including annuities or high-yield assets like stock funds, and you won’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw the money. Some employers may also offer you a matching contribution if you save money in a 403(b).
Disadvantages: Like the 401(k), the money in a 403(b) plan will not be readily available unless you have a qualifying emergency. While it is possible to access the money without an emergency, it may cost you penalties and taxes, although you can also take a loan from your 403(b). Another drawback: You may not be able to invest in what you want, since your options are limited to the plan’s investment options.
What this means for you: A 403(b) plan is one of the best ways for workers in certain industries to save for retirement, especially if they can receive matching funds.
Another retirement plan in the United States similar to the 401(k) is the 457(b), but it is only available to employees of state and local governments and some tax-exempt organizations. In this tax-advantaged plan, an employee can contribute wages on a pre-tax basis, meaning the earnings are not subject to tax. The 457(b) allows contributions to grow tax-free until retirement, and when the employee withdraws the money, it becomes taxable.
Pros: A 457(b) plan can be an effective way to save for retirement, due to its tax advantages. The plan offers some special savings provisions for older workers to catch up that other plans do not. The 457(b) is considered a supplemental savings plan, and therefore withdrawals before age 59.5 are not subject to the 10 percent penalty as is the case with 401(k) plans.
Disadvantages: The typical 457(b) plan does not offer an employer match, which makes it much less attractive than a 401(k) plan. Also, it is more difficult to take an emergency withdrawal in a 457(b) plan than in a 401(k) plan.
What this means for you: A 457(b) plan can be a good retirement plan, but it does offer some drawbacks compared to other defined contribution plans. On the other hand, by offering withdrawals before the usual retirement age of 59.5 without an additional penalty, the 457(b) can be beneficial for retired public servants who may be physically disabled and need access to their money.
An IRA is one of the valuable retirement plans in the United States created by the government to help workers save for retirement. Individuals can contribute up to $6,000 to an account in 2020, and workers age 50 and older can contribute up to $7,000.
There are many types of IRAs, including a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, spousal IRA, rollover IRA, SEP IRA, and SIMPLE IRA. Here’s what each is and how they differ from one another.
A traditional IRA is a tax-advantaged plan that allows you significant tax breaks while saving for retirement. Anyone who earns money from work can contribute pre-tax dollars to the plan, which means the contribution is not taxable income.
The IRA allows these contributions to grow tax-free until withdrawn by the account owner at retirement and they become taxable. Withdrawals prior to retirement may subject the employee to additional taxes and penalties.
Pros: A traditional IRA is a very popular account to invest in for retirement, because it offers some valuable tax benefits, and it also allows you to buy an almost unlimited number of investments: stocks, bonds, CDs, real estate and other things. Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, is that you don’t have to pay any taxes until you withdraw the money at retirement.
Disadvantage: If you need the money from a traditional IRA, it can be expensive to withdraw, due to additional taxes and penalties. And an IRA requires that you invest the money yourself, either in a bank or in stocks or bonds or something else entirely. You will have to decide where and how you will invest the money, although you can ask an advisor to do it for you.
What this means for you: A traditional IRA is one of the best US retirement plans out there. Although if you can get a 401(k) plan with a matching contribution, that’s a little better. But if your employer doesn’t offer a defined contribution plan, then a traditional IRA is available to you instead—note that the tax deduction on contributions is eliminated at higher income levels.
The Roth IRA is a new version of the traditional IRA, and it offers significant tax benefits. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax money, which means you’ve paid taxes on the money going into the account. In return, you won’t have to pay taxes on the contributions and earnings that come out of the account at retirement.
Pros: The Roth IRA offers several advantages, including the special ability to avoid taxes on all money withdrawn from the account in retirement, at age 59.5 or later. The Roth IRA also provides a lot of flexibility, because contributions (not earnings) can often be withdrawn at any time without taxes or penalties. This flexibility makes the Roth IRA a great choice among retirement plans in the United States.
Disadvantages: As with a traditional IRA, you will have full control of the investments made in a Roth IRA. And that means you’ll have to decide how to invest the money or have someone else do the work for you. There are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA, though there is a way to contribute something else.
What this means for you: A Roth IRA is a great option because of its huge tax advantages, and it’s a great option if you’re able to increase your retirement earnings and avoid being taxed again by the tax man.
IRAs are normally reserved for workers who have income from work, but the spouse IRA allows the partner of a worker with earned income to also fund an IRA. The taxable income of the working spouse must be greater than the contributions made to any IRA. Your spousal IRA can be a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.
Advantages: The biggest advantage of the spousal IRA is that it allows the non-working spouse to take advantage of the various benefits of an IRA, whether it is the traditional or Roth version.
Cons: There’s no particular downside to a spousal IRA, though like all IRAs, you’ll have to decide how to invest the money.
What this means for you: The spousal IRA allows you to help plan for your spouse’s retirement, without forcing your partner to have income as would normally be the case. This allows your spouse to stay home or take care of other family needs.
A rollover IRA is created when you move a retirement account such as a 401(k) or IRA to a new IRA. You “roll over” the money from an account to the rollover IRA and can still take advantage of the tax benefits of an IRA. You can set up a rollover IRA at any institution that allows it, it can be a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. There is no limit to the amount of money that can be transferred.
A rollover IRA also allows you to change your retirement account type, from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, or vice versa. You will create a transfer IRA account to move the money and then make the transfer. However, certain types of transfers can create tax liabilities, so it is important to understand these consequences before deciding how to proceed.
Pros: A rollover IRA allows you to continue to take advantage of attractive tax benefits if you decide to leave a former employer’s 401(k) plan for any reason. If you simply want to change IRA providers for an existing IRA, you can transfer your account to a new provider. As with all IRAs, you can purchase a wide variety of investments.
Disadvantages: As with all IRAs, you’ll have to decide how to invest the money, and that can be a problem for some people. You should pay special attention to the tax consequences of rolling over your money, because they can be substantial, but this is usually only an issue if you’re changing your account type.
What it means to you: A rollover IRA is a convenient way to move from a 401(k) or IRA to another IRA. The rollover IRA can improve your financial situation by offering you the opportunity to switch IRA types from traditional to Roth or vice versa.
The SEP IRA is set up like a traditional IRA, but for small business owners and their employees. Only the employer can contribute to this plan, and contributions go to a SEP IRA for each employee instead of a trust fund. Self-employed individuals can also create a SEP IRA.
Contribution limits in 2020 are 25 percent of compensation or $57,000, whichever is less. Calculating contribution limits for self-employed individuals is a bit more complicated.
“It’s very similar to a profit-sharing plan,” says Littell, because contributions can be made at the employer’s discretion.
Pros: For employees, this is a free retirement account. For the self-employed, the higher contribution limits make it much more attractive than a regular IRA.
Cons: There is no certainty about how much employees will accumulate in this plan. On the other hand, money is more accessible. This could be seen as a good thing, but Littell sees it as a negative.
What this means for you: Account holders continue to be tasked with making investment decisions. You must resist the temptation to move the account early. If you use the money before age 59.5, you will have to pay a 10% penalty in addition to income tax.
With 401(k) plans, employers have to pass multiple nondiscrimination tests each year to make sure highly compensated workers aren’t contributing too much to the plan relative to base.
The SIMPLE IRA bypasses those requirements because the same benefits are provided to all employees. The employer can choose between contributing a 3 percent matching or making a 2 percent non-elective contribution, even if the employee does not save anything in his or her own SIMPLE IRA.
Pros: Littell says that most SIMPLE IRAs are designed to provide a match, so they provide an opportunity for workers to make pre-tax salary deferrals and receive a matching contribution. To the employee, this plan doesn’t look much different than a 401(k) plan.
Disadvantages: The employee contribution is limited to $13,500 for 2020, compared to $19,500 for other defined contribution plans. But most people don’t contribute that much anyway, says Littell.
What it means for you: As with other DC (defined contribution) plans, employees have to make the same decisions: how much to contribute and how to invest the money.
401(k) Solo Plan
Also known as Solo-k, Uni-k, and Un-participant k, the Solo 401(k) plan is another of the retirement plans in the United States and is designed for a business owner and their spouse.
Because the owner of the business is both the employer and the employee, elective deferrals of up to $19,500 can be made. And a non-elective contribution of up to 25 percent of compensation up to a total annual contribution of $57,000 for incorporated businesses, not including catch-up contributions. The limit for unincorporated companies is 20 percent, says Littell.
Pros: “If you don’t have other employees, an individual account is better than a SIMPLE IRA because you can contribute more to it,” says Littell. “The SEP is a bit easier to set up and terminate. So if you don’t want to contribute more than 20 percent of your earnings, I would create a SEP.” However, if you want to set up your plan as a Roth, you can’t do it on a SEP, but you can with a K-Solo.
Cons: It’s a little more complicated to set up, and once assets exceed $250,000, you’ll need to file an annual report on Form 5500-SE.
What it means to you: If you have plans to expand and hire employees, this plan won’t work. Once you hire other workers, the IRS mandates that they be included in the plan if they meet the eligibility requirements and the plan will be subject to non-discrimination tests.
Pensions, more formally known as defined benefit plans (DB defined benefit), are the easiest to manage because they require less of you.
Pensions are fully funded by employers and provide a fixed monthly benefit to workers at retirement. But DB plans are on the endangered species list because fewer and fewer companies offer them. Only 16 percent of Fortune 500 companies attracted workers with pension plans in 2017, compared to 59 percent in 1998.
Why? DB plans require the employer to meet a costly agreement to fund: a hefty sum for retirement. Pensions, which are payable for life, generally replace a percentage of your salary based on your length of employment and salary. A common formula is 1.5 percent of final median compensation multiplied by years of service, according to Littell. A worker with an average salary of $50,000 over a 25-year career, for example, would receive an annual pension payment of $18,750, or $1,562.50 per month.
Pros: This benefit addresses longevity risk, or the risk of running out of money before you die. “If you know that your company is providing a replacement of 30 to 40 percent of your salary for the rest of your life, in addition to the fact that you are receiving 40 percent of Social Security, this provides a solid foundation of financial security,” he says. Littell. “Additional savings can help, but they’re not as important to your retirement security.”
Disadvantage: Because the formula is generally tied to years of service and compensation, the benefit grows faster at the end of the career. “If you were to change jobs or the company cancels the plan before you reach retirement age, you may get much less than the benefit you originally expected,” says Littell.
What it means for you: With company pensions becoming scarcer and more valuable, if you’re lucky enough to have one, leaving the company can be a big decision. Should you stay or go? It depends on the financial strength of your employer, how long you’ve been with the company, and how close you are to retirement. You should also consider your job satisfaction and whether there are better employment opportunities elsewhere.
Guaranteed Income Annuities (GIA)
GIAs (Guaranteed Income Annuities) are not usually offered by employers, but individuals can purchase these annuities to create their own pensions.
A large lump sum can be exchanged at retirement and an immediate annuity purchased for a monthly payment for life. But most people are not comfortable with this arrangement. More popular are deferred income annuities that are paid over time.
For example, at age 50, you can start making premium payments until age 65, if that’s when you plan to retire. “Every time you make a payment, it increases your payout for life,” says Littell.
You can buy them after paying taxes, in which case you’ll only pay taxes on plan earnings. Or you can buy it into an IRA and get an advance tax deduction. But the entire annuity would be taxable when you make withdrawals.
Pros: Littell himself invested in a deferred income annuity to create a lifetime stream of income. “It’s very satisfying, it felt great to build a bigger pension over time,” he says.
Cons: If you’re not sure when you’re going to retire or even if you’re going to retire, then it might not make sense. “You’re also locking yourself into a strategy that you can’t get rid of,” he says.
What it means for you: You’ll get bond-like returns and lose the chance to earn higher returns on the stock market in exchange for the guaranteed income. Since payments are for life, you also get more payments (and better overall performance) if you live longer. “People forget that these decisions always involve compensation,” says Littell.
Profit Sharing Plans
Some companies offer a profit-sharing plan to their workers as an incentive to be productive so that they can help drive and share in the profits of the company.
This is another hands-off benefit, in the sense that you cannot contribute to it; only the employer does. But here’s the catch: Your employer has the discretion to contribute from year to year. However, the government insists that the contributions be “recurring and substantial”.
Pros: “It costs you nothing,” Littell says. “In some profit-sharing plans you can choose the investments you want and in others, the trustees make the investment decisions.”
Cons: Profit sharing plans are not a good way to ensure your financial security. “It’s hard to predict how much benefit you’ll get in retirement,” says Littell. “You don’t know how much the company is going to contribute from one year to the next and you don’t know what the investment experience will be.”
What it means to you: When planning for retirement, it’s a good idea to look at the company’s contribution history to get an idea of what to expect. You don’t have to make many decisions unless the plan allows you to determine how to invest the money. One important caveat: “At the time of distribution, as with any account, you should make sure it’s rolled over to an IRA to defer income tax,” Littell says.
The federal government’s plan
This is another of the retirement plans in the United States that has great advantages for those who can obtain it. The Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS, offers a secure and robust retirement planning option for civilian employees who meet certain service requirements:
- A basic defined benefit plan
- Social Security
- The Savings Savings Plan, or TSP (The Thrift Savings Plan)
Only two of these are portable if you leave your government job, Social Security and the TSP, the latter of which is also available to members of the uniformed services. The TSP is a lot like a 401(k) drug plan.
Participants choose from five low-cost investment options, including a bond fund, an S&P 500 index fund, a small-cap fund and an international stock fund; plus a fund that invests in specially issued Treasury securities.
In addition, federal workers can choose from several lifecycle funds with different predetermined withdrawal dates that are invested in those core funds, making investment decisions relatively easy.
Pros: Federal employees are eligible for the defined benefit plan. In addition, they can earn a 5 percent employer contribution to the TSP, which includes a 1 percent non-elective contribution, a dollar-for-dollar match for the next 3 percent, and a 50 percent match for the next 2 percent. contributed.
“The formula is a bit complicated, but if you put in 5 percent, they put in 5 percent,” says Littell. “Another positive aspect is that the investment fees are surprisingly low, four hundredths of a percentage point.” That translates to 40 cents per $1,000 invested, much lower than anywhere else.
Disadvantage: As with all defined contribution plans, there is always uncertainty about your account balance when you retire.
What it means for you: You still have to decide how much to contribute, how to invest and whether to make the Roth election. However, it makes a lot of sense to contribute at least 5 percent of your salary to get the maximum employer contribution.
Cash Balance Plans
Among retirement plans in the United States, it is what is known as a type of defined benefit or pension plan.
But instead of replacing a certain percentage of your lifetime income, you’re promised a certain hypothetical account balance based on contribution credits and investment credits (for example, annual interest). A common setup for cash balance plans is a company contribution credit of 6 percent of pay plus a 5 percent annual investment credit, Littell says.
Investment credits are a promise and are not based on actual contribution credits. For example, let’s say a 5 percent return is promised, or an investment credit. If plan assets earn more, the employer can decrease contributions. In fact, many companies that want to get rid of their traditional pension plan convert to a cash balance plan because it allows them better control over costs.
Pros: It still provides a promised benefit and you don’t have to contribute anything. “There’s pretty much certainty as to how much you’re going to get,” says Littell. Plus, if you decide to change jobs, your account balance is transferable, so you’ll get what the account is worth when you leave your old job.
Disadvantage: If the company switches from a generous pension plan to a cash balance plan, older workers may lose out, although some companies will leave older employees in their original plan. Also, investment credits are relatively modest, typically 4 or 5 percent. “It becomes a conservative part of your portfolio,” Littell says.
What it means for you: The date you retire will have an impact on your benefits. “Retiring early can cut into your benefit,” says Littell. Working longer is more advantageous. In addition, you will be able to choose between a lump sum or an annuity form of benefit. When given the choice between a $200,000 lump sum or a $1,000 monthly annuity check for life, “too many people” choose the lump sum when it would really be in their best interest to receive the annuity for life, says Littell.
If you’re married and don’t want to leave your spouse adrift (in case they predecease him or her), consider a joint life annuity instead of a single life annuity.
Cash Value Life Insurance Plan
Some companies offer insurance options as a benefit.
There are several types: whole life, variable life, universal life, and variable universal life. They provide a death benefit while building cash value, which could support your retirement needs. If you withdraw the cash value, the premiums you paid (your cost basis) are earned first and are not taxed.
“There are some similarities to the Roth tax treatment, but it’s more complicated,” says Littell. “You don’t get a deduction on the way in, but if it’s designed properly you can get tax-free withdrawals on the way out.”
Pros: Addresses multiple risks by providing a death benefit or source of income. Plus, you get tax deferral on the growth of your investment.
Cons: “If you don’t do it right, if the policy lapses, you end up with a big tax bill,” he adds. Like other insurance solutions, once you buy it, you’re more or less locked into the long-term strategy. Another risk is that products do not always work as well in practice as they do in theory.
What it means to you: These products are for wealthier people who have exhausted all other retirement savings vehicles. If you have reached the contribution limits for your 401(k) and IRA, then you might consider investing in this type of life insurance.
Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plans (NQDCs)
Unless you are a top executive, you can forget about being offered an NQDC plan (Nonqualified deferred compensation plans). It is one of the most beneficial retirement plans in the United States.
In any case, we can explain what this plan consists of. Littell says there are two main types: One looks like a 401(k) plan with salary deferment and a company match, the other is funded solely by the employer.
The problem is that most of the time the latter is not really funded. The employer puts in writing a “mere promise to pay” and can make accounting entries and set aside funds, but those funds are subject to creditor claims.
Pros: The benefit is that you can save money tax-deferred, but the employer can’t take a contribution tax deduction until you start paying income tax on the withdrawals.
Cons: They do not offer as much security. “There’s some risk that you won’t get paid (from an NQDC plan) if the company is in financial trouble,” says Littell.
What it means for you: For executives with access to an NQDC plan in addition to a 401(k), Littell’s advice is to maximize 401(k) contributions first. Then, if the company is financially secure, contribute to the NQDC plan if it is set up as a blended 401(k).