What is a Defined Contribution Plan, and How Does it Work?

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

When planning for retirement, it’s essential to have a solid understanding of the different types of retirement plans available. A defined contribution plan is one such type, and it’s a popular option for both employers and employees. This guide will explore a defined contribution plan and how it works.

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What is a Defined Contribution Plan?

A defined contribution plan is a type of retirement plan that allows employees and employers to contribute to an individual account. The contributions made by both parties are invested, and the account balance grows over time. The ultimate value of the account depends on the investment performance of the funds chosen.

What Is A Defined Contribution Plan

How Does it Work?

A defined contribution plan allows employees to contribute to their account from their salary, either pre-tax or after-tax, depending on the plan. Employers may also choose to make contributions on behalf of their employees, often as part of a matching program.

Once the contributions are made, the funds are invested in a selection of investment options chosen by the employee. These options typically include mutual funds, stocks, and bonds; their performance will determine the account’s growth over time.

Employees can typically manage their investments by adjusting the investment mix, and they have control over the account. For example, employees can withdraw the funds as a lump sum, set up regular payments, or roll it over to an IRA when they reach retirement age.

Benefits of a Defined Contribution Plan:

There are many benefits to a defined contribution plan, including:

  • Portability: The account belongs to the employee, so they can take the account balance with them if they leave their job.
  • Tax Benefits: Contributions to the plan are often tax-deductible, and the account grows tax-free until retirement.
  • Flexibility: Employees have control over their investment choices, allowing them to tailor their retirement savings to their individual needs and goals.
  • Employer Contributions: Many employers offer matching contributions, which can significantly increase the account’s value over time.

Defined Contribution Plan Examples

There are several examples of defined contribution plans, including:

  • 401k Plan: This popular defined contribution plan allows employees to contribute a portion of their salary to their account, often with an employer match. Contributions are typically made pre-tax, and the funds are invested in a selection of investment options.
  • 403b Plan: This type of plan is similar to a 401k plan but is typically offered by non-profit organizations, such as schools and hospitals.
  • Individual Retirement Account (IRA): An IRA is a personal retirement savings account that anyone can open. Contributions to an IRA can be made on a pre-tax or after-tax basis, depending on the type of IRA.
  • Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) Plan: This plan is designed for small business owners and self-employed individuals. Employers can contribute a percentage of their income to the plan, and contributions are tax-deductible.
  • Thrift Savings Plan (TSP): This plan is available to federal government employees and military members. Contributions are made pre-tax, and the funds are invested in various investment options.

Defined Contribution Plan Alternatives

While a defined contribution plan can be an excellent retirement savings option for many people, it’s not the only choice available. Here are a few defined contribution plan alternatives to consider:

  • Defined Benefit Plan: Unlike a defined contribution plan based on contributions and investment performance, a defined benefit plan promises a specific payout upon retirement. Employers typically offer these plans, and the payout is calculated based on salary and years of service.
  • Roth IRA: A Roth IRA is an individual retirement account funded with after-tax dollars. Unlike a traditional IRA or 401k, funded with pre-tax dollars, withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax-free as long as certain conditions are met.
  • Health Savings Account (HSA): While not precisely a retirement savings plan, an HSA can be a valuable alternative for those who want to save for healthcare costs in retirement. Contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible, and withdrawals for qualified healthcare expenses are tax-free.
  • Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation (NQDC) Plan: The (NQDC) plan allows highly-compensated employees to defer a portion of their salary until a later date, typically retirement. Contributions to the plan are not tax-deductible, but they grow tax-deferred until withdrawal.
  • annuity: An annuity is an insurance product that can provide a guaranteed income stream in retirement. While not a traditional retirement plan, an annuity can be helpful in a retirement portfolio.

Next Steps

A defined contribution plan is a popular retirement savings option that allows employees to contribute to an individual account, invest in various options, and ultimately control their retirement savings. By understanding how a defined contribution plan works, you can make an informed decision about whether it’s the right option for you.

Defined Contribution Plan

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Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a defined contribution plan and a defined benefit plan?

A defined benefit plan promises a specific payout upon retirement, while a defined contribution plan does not guarantee a specific payout.

How much should I contribute to my defined contribution plan?

It’s best to contribute as much as you can afford, and at a minimum, you should aim to contribute enough to take advantage of any employer matching program.

Can I withdraw funds from my defined contribution plan before retirement age?

In most cases, you can withdraw funds from your defined contribution plan before retirement, but you’ll likely face penalties and taxes.

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

I’m a licensed financial professional focusing on annuities and insurance for more than a decade. My former role was training financial advisors, including for a Fortune Global 500 insurance company. I’ve been featured in Time Magazine, Yahoo! Finance, MSN, SmartAsset, Entrepreneur, Bloomberg, The Simple Dollar, U.S. News and World Report, and Women’s Health Magazine.

The Annuity Expert is an online insurance agency servicing consumers across the United States. My goal is to help you take the guesswork out of retirement planning or find the best insurance coverage at the cheapest rates for you. 

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