Understanding the Differences Between 401(a), 403(b), and 457(b) Retirement Plans

Chris Reddick |

When planning for retirement, it's crucial to understand the various retirement savings options available, especially if you work in the public sector, education, or non-profit organizations. Three common retirement plans you might encounter are 401(a), 403(b), and 457(b) plans. While they all serve the purpose of helping you save for retirement, they have distinct features, eligibility requirements, and contribution limits. Here’s a detailed look at each plan and how they differ. Be sure to check with your HR department, as the plan rules may vary from what is shown below. Also, remember that contribution limits change every year with inflation adjustments.

401(a) Plan

Overview: A 401(a) plan is a retirement plan typically offered by government employers, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. These plans are often used as incentives to attract and retain employees. The main difference between the 401(a) and other plans is that the employer determines contribution levels.

Key Features:

  • Eligibility: The employer sets eligibility criteria, which can vary significantly. Eligibility is generally available to specific groups of employees, such as certain departments or roles within an organization.
  • Contributions: Both employer and employee contributions are allowed, but the employer determines the contribution levels and may mandate employee contributions, making it a non-elective plan.
  • Vesting: The employer also determines vesting schedules, which can range from immediate vesting to gradual vesting over several years.
  • Portability: If you leave your employer, the funds can typically be rolled over into another qualified retirement plan, such as an IRA.

Contribution Limits:

  • For 2024, the total contribution limit (including both employer and employee contributions) is the lesser of 100% of the employee’s compensation or $69,000.

403(b) Plan

Overview: A 403(b) plan, also known as a tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) plan, is designed for employees of public schools, non-profit organizations, and certain ministers. It is similar to a 401(k) plan but tailored for the non-profit sector and education.

Key Features:

  • Eligibility: Generally available to employees of public schools, colleges, universities, and non-profit organizations.
  • Contributions: Employees contribute pre-tax or Roth (after-tax) dollars through salary deferrals. Employers may also make contributions, though this is not always the case.
  • Investment Options are typically limited to annuities and mutual funds, which can be advantageous or limiting depending on your investment preferences.
  • Catch-Up Contributions: Employees aged 50 and older can make additional catch-up contributions.

Contribution Limits:

  • For 2024, the elective deferral limit is $23,000 if you are under 50. Including employer contributions, the total contribution limit is $69,000 or 100% of the employee's compensation, whichever is less. Employees aged 50 or older can contribute an additional $7,500 as catch-up contributions.

457(b) Plan

Overview: The 457(b) plan is a deferred compensation plan available to state and local government employees and employees of certain non-profit organizations. It allows participants to defer compensation on a pre-tax basis. The unique features of 457(b) plans are that there is no 10% penalty if you separate from service, and it is not aggregated with the 401(a) or 403(b) plans, so you can potentially save in both plans up to $23,000 in 2024 under 50.

Key Features:

  • Eligibility: Primarily available to employees of state and local governments and some non-profit organizations.
  • Contributions: Employees contribute pre-tax dollars, reducing their taxable income. Roth 457(b) plans can also available. Employers may also make contributions, though this is less common.
  • Distribution: Unlike 401(a) and 403(b) plans, 457(b) plans do not impose a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take distributions before age 59½, provided you are no longer with the employer.
  • Catch-Up Contributions: In the three years prior to normal retirement age, participants may be eligible to make special catch-up contributions, allowing them to contribute up to double the regular annual limit.

Contribution Limits:

  • The elective deferral limit for 2024 is $23,000. Participants aged 50 and older can make additional catch-up contributions of $7,500.

Summary of Key Differences

Feature 401(a) Plan 403(b) Plan 457(b) Plan
Eligibility Determined by employer Employees of public schools and non-profits State/local government and non-profits
Contribution Source Employer and employee Primarily employee, employer optional Primarily employee, employer optional
Vesting Employer-determined Immediate or employer-determined Immediate or employer-determined
Investment Options Varied Annuities, mutual funds Varied
Catch-Up Contributions Not applicable $7,500 (age 50+) $7,500 (age 50+); up to $46,000 special catch-up
Early Withdrawal Penalty 10% before age 59½ 10% before age 59½ There is no penalty if separated from the service


Is a 457b plan employee limited aggregated with the 403(b) plan?

No, the contribution limits for a 457(b) plan are not aggregated with those for a 403(b) plan. If you are eligible to contribute to a 457(b) and a 403(b) plan, you can contribute the maximum allowable amount to each plan separately.

For 2024, the elective deferral limits are as follows:

  • 403(b) Plan: $23,000, with an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500 if you are 50 or older.
  • 457(b) Plan: $23,000, with an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500 if you are 50 or older.

This means that in 2024 if you are under 50, you could potentially contribute a total of $46,000 by maximizing contributions to both plans. If you are 50 or older, you could contribute a total of $61,000 to both plans combined. Having 403(b) and 457(b) plans available can enable you to supersize your retirement savings.

Evaluating Public Service and Educators Retirement Plans

Analyze fees and expenses: Fees can significantly impact your investment returns over time. Look for information on:

  • Expense Ratios: Annual fees charged by mutual funds or annuities.
  • Administrative Fees: Fees for managing the plan.
  • Transaction Fees: Fees for buying, selling, or transferring investments.
  • Surrender Charges: Penalties for early withdrawal from annuity contracts.

Evaluate Investment Options: Consider the variety and quality of investment options:

  • Mutual Funds: Look for a range of funds covering various asset classes (e.g., equities, bonds, international investments).
  • Annuities: If offered, consider the stability and guarantees provided by annuity products, but also be aware of higher fees.
  • Performance: Review the historical performance of the investment options compared to their benchmarks.

Use Online Resources: There are several websites and tools that can help you evaluate and compare 403(b) plans:

  • 403bwise (403bwise.org): A non-profit organization providing resources and tools to help participants make informed decisions about their 403(b) plans.
  • BrightScope (brightscope.com): Offers ratings and analysis of various retirement plans, including 403(b) plans.
  • Morningstar (morningstar.com): Provides comprehensive data on mutual funds and other investment options available within 403(b) plans.

Consult Financial Advisors: If you’re uncertain about which plan to choose, consider consulting a fee-only financial advisor specializing in retirement planning. They can provide personalized advice based on your financial situation and retirement goals.

Seek Peer Reviews and Experiences: Talk to colleagues or peers participating in the same 403(b) plan. Their experiences and insights can be valuable in understanding the plan's practical aspects, such as ease of use, customer service, and any issues encountered.


Understanding the differences between 401(a), 403(b), and 457(b) plans is essential for making informed decisions about your retirement savings strategy. Each plan offers unique benefits and is tailored to different types of employers and employees. By recognizing each plan's specific features and contribution limits, you can better plan for a secure and comfortable retirement. If I can help with your retirement plan, contact me on the page below.


*This content is developed from sources believed to be providing accurate information. The information provided is not written or intended as tax or legal advice and may not be relied on to avoid Federal Government tax penalties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel. Individuals involved in the estate planning process should work with an estate planning team, including their own personal legal or tax counsel. Neither the information presented nor any opinion expressed constitutes a representation of a specific investment or the purchase or sale of any securities. Asset allocation and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets.

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