401(a) vs 401(k)

401(a) vs. 401(k): What’s The Difference?

We’re all aware of the importance of saving for retirement, but it’s crucial to comprehend the retirement savings options provided by your employer. The 401(k) plan enables you to allocate a portion of your earnings toward a retirement fund, while the 401(a) plan mainly serves as a retirement savings option. Both plans share similar objectives but vary significantly in their structures and features. Read on to learn more about the difference between 401(a) vs 401(k).


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What Is a 401(a)?

A 401(a) retirement savings plan is provided by government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations, distinct from those offered by private corporations. These plans are customizable to suit employees’ needs, fostering employee retention. Employers have authority over employee contributions and must contribute to the plan. Employee involvement is generally mandatory, and contributions can be pre- or post-tax.

What Is a 401(k)?

Private-sector employers in the United States commonly provide a 401(k) retirement savings plan. Its purpose is to facilitate and incentivize employee retirement savings by allowing them to contribute a portion of their pre-tax income into the account, thereby reducing their current taxable income. Employees can decide the monthly income amount to allocate, and employers may match some or all contributions up to a specified limit. The plans are flexible and portable. A person can roll it over into a new 401(k) or a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) after changing jobs.

401(a) vs. 401(k): Key Differences

There are notable differences between 401(a) and 401(k) plans:

1.   Employee autonomy

The distinction between the two plans lies in the employer’s obligation to contribute and the method of this contribution. In the case of the 401(a) plan, employers are required to make monetary contributions to the plan. In a 401(k) plan, employees can determine the amount they wish to allocate toward their retirement savings account. They can invest a specific percentage of their pre-tax earnings into the 401(k) account. Conversely, in a 401(a) plan, worker contribution limits are established by the employer.

2.   Contribution limit

The contribution limit for a 401(a) plan stands at $66,000, encompassing both employer and employee contributions, with a rise to $69,000 in 2024.

In contrast, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) contribution limit for a 401(k) plan is fixed at $22,500 for 2023. Employees aged 50 and above are permitted a catch-up contribution of $6,500, increasing the contribution limit to $29,000. In 2024, the limits escalated to $23,000, with a corresponding $7,000 catch-up contribution allowance for individuals aged 50 and above. Catch-up contributions are useful for those who started saving for retirement late.

3.   Eligibility

According to Section 410(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code, eligibility for a 401(a) vs. 401(k) plan requires individuals to be either 21 years old or have fulfilled a specific tenure requirement at the company sponsoring the plan. This tenure requirement is one year for 401(k) plans and two years for 401(a) plans.

401(a) vs. 401(k): Taxes

Similar to a traditional 401(k), 401(a) plan contributions are made with pre-tax dollars. This means an employee’s contribution is not subject to income taxes. The money grows tax-deferred, and the distributions after retiring are taxed as ordinary income. Additionally, if withdrawals for both account types are made before reaching the age of 59-1/2, the IRS imposes a 10% early withdrawal penalty on top of the regular income tax.

401(a) vs. 401(k): Main providers

Private-sector businesses offer 401(k) plans to their workforce, with asset management firms and payroll service providers facilitating these plans for employers. Furthermore, online brokerage companies like Charles Schwab and Motif extend these plans to individual business proprietors. Conversely, government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations commonly offer their employees 401(a) plans.

401(a) vs. 401(k): How to open?

The IRS outlines the steps required for a business or employer to establish a retirement savings plan, during which they may either establish and manage the account themselves or seek assistance from a financial institution. To initiate a 401(a) or 401(k) plan, the employer must develop a written plan and designate a trust fund to oversee the plan’s assets. Additionally, they must establish a record-keeping system for the plan and inform employees about its particulars.

Understanding which is better?

Determining which option is superior depends on your circumstances. The disparity between a 401(a) and a Roth 401(k) lies in their tax treatment. 

Contributions to a 401(k) are made with pre-tax income, thus exempting them from taxation, similar to contributions to a Roth 401(k), which are from after-tax income and previous immediate tax benefits. However, upon retirement, withdrawals from a 401(a) account are subject to taxes, specifically 20% mandatory federal tax withholding. 

On the other hand, funds from a Roth 401(k) are tax-free if the account has been held for at least five years.

401(a) vs. 401(k): Additional Tips

You may have more questions looming in your mind about 401(k) vs. 401(a) and more retirement-related things. Read these tips to help you in your process:

  • Consulting a financial advisor can significantly assist you in planning for your retirement. Discovering a suitable financial advisor can be easy. Professional advice can help you assess whether a 401(k) or a 401(a) would suit you best.
  • When comparing the advantages and disadvantages of 401(a) versus 401(k) plans, you must identify your financial objectives and the timeframe within which you aim to accomplish them.
  • Using a retirement calculator can be beneficial in this planning process. Remember that these contribution plans, like a 401(k) and a 401(a), come with annual limits. Awareness of these limits is crucial when allocating portions of your income for contributions.
  • Understand withdrawal rules by familiarizing yourself with them and the penalties associated with each plan. Determine when and how you can access your funds in retirement and consider how these rules may impact your long-term financial strategy.

401(a) vs. 401(k): Bottomline

401(a) plans are usually offered by government and non-profit employers, with investment choices determined by the employer, often limited in scope. For instance, government-sponsored 401(a) plans may feature conservative investment options exclusively.

In contrast, 401(k) plans are prevalent in the private sector, with employers usually providing a customizable range of investment options tailored to employees’ risk tolerance and investment goals. Regardless of the retirement savings vehicle an employer offers, knowing the difference between a 401(k) and a 401(a) serves as a cornerstone of effective retirement planning.

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Tammy Danan
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Tammy is a journalist and creative content writer with over 10 years of experience. Driven by curiosity, her work explores how digital marketing, SaaS, and varied creative pursuits intersect with everyday life.She focuses on creative storytelling and tackles how the search for a more meaningful life is changing the way we work.Tammy will meow at all stray cats, and won't start the day without an iced Spanish latte.

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