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403(b) vs. 401(k): Here’s What You Need to Know if You’re Choosing Plans

A white piggy bank, with 403(b) written in marker on the side, sits on a desk with money and a keyboard.
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Paper or plastic? Uber or Lyft? 403(b) or 401(k)?

It’s not often that you’re faced with the last choice. But if you’re a teacher, nurse or government employee, you may have been presented with this question before, because tax-exempt organizations can offer a 403(b) retirement plan, in addition to a traditional 401(k) option.

When you select the vehicle that will drive your investments, here are the things you should know about 403(b) and 401(k) plans.

403(b) vs. 401(k): What’s the Same?

Fundamentally, 403(b) and 401(k) plans are the same.

Both retirement plans are tax-deferred, meaning they protect you from paying taxes on contributions now and lower your annual taxable income, and you’ll pay taxes when you withdraw the funds.

The annual contribution limits, withdrawal requirements and rules for taking out a loan are the same as well.

403(b) vs. 401(k): What’s Different?

The differences are nuanced. 401(k) plans can be offered by any employer, while 403(b) plans are offered by tax-exempt organizations, such as nonprofits, religious groups, government organizations and school districts. While these organizations can also offer a 401(k), for-profit businesses don’t have the option of offering 403(b) plans.

The law allows tax-exempt organizations a pass on certain employer requirements, making administrative costs for a 403(b) less expensive. In turn, employer matches and contributions also aren’t as common for 403(b) plans as they are for 401(k)s.

And while annual contribution limits are the same, 403(b) plans have a unique provision called the maximum allowable contribution, aka MAC. It allows employees with at least 15 years of service to an employer to add an extra $3,000 to their annual contributions.

If you leave your employer, you’ll face the same rollover provisions for both plans, with one exception: You can roll a 403(b) into a 401(k), but not vice versa.

A 403(b) plan isn’t regulated as closely as a 401(k) plan. In exchange, administrative costs in 401(k) plans can be slightly higher.

  401(k) 403(b)
Eligibility Sponsored by any employer. Sponsored by a tax-exempt employer.
Annual contribution limits
(2018)
$18,500 if you’re under 50;
$24,500 if you’re 50 or older.
Same as a 401(k), but if you’ve been with your employer for 15 years or more, you can add an extra $3,000 to your contribution.
Investments Can contain almost any type of investment. Only contains mutual funds and annuities.
Rollovers Can be rolled over into traditional IRA or new employer-sponsored 401(k). Can be rolled over into traditional IRA or new employer-sponsored 403(b) or 401(k).
Required minimum distributions Withdrawals must begin no later than age 70 ½ Same, except for special allowances on pre-1987 amounts

If Your Employer Offers Both, Which Is Right for You?

If you’re looking to invest early and often, you can’t make a bad decision. But you should take a close look to ensure you’re making the best decision.

Get a list of the investment options and fees for both. While 403(b)s can only be invested in annuities and mutual funds, 401(k) plans have a wider pool of investments, including mutual funds, annuities, bonds, company stock and others.

Both can have very optimal or very suboptimal investments. It’s up to you to make sure the plan you choose is the one with the highest-performing and lowest-fee funds.  

Ultimately, the differences between a 403(b) and a 401(k) are small enough that your choice will likely come down to the options your employer has chosen inside your company’s plan more than the plan itself.

Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @savingwithspunk.

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