For some people, one of the most intriguing aspects of a job offer is what kind of retirement plan offerings they have in their compensation package. Aside from your social security benefits, you will want to make sure you have additional money to fund life after retirement.  The two most common retirement benefits offered are a 401K account or a traditional pension plan. In this article, we’re going to tell you all about 401K vs. pension plan options, so you can make the best choice for your future.

What We Will Cover: 401K vs. Pension Plan

401K and pension plans both provide money in retirement; however, they are structured and administered very differently. In this article, we help you understand the difference between a 401K account vs. a pension plan, the pros and cons of both, and some elements you will want to consider when deciding between the two.

What is a 401K account?

A 401K account is an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan that allows employees to contribute a portion of their paycheck into a tax-deferred account. In more recent years, companies have phased out pension plans and replaced them with 401K account options. The plan shifts the responsibility of saving for retirement to the employee.

401k Employer Match Contributios Consideration Matters

Among defined contribution plans, 401K’s are one of the most popular types. In a 401K, you can choose to set aside a percentage of your pay into an account that you control. In some cases, companies may choose to match your contributions; however, there are conditions to this. For example, the employee may need to work a certain number of years to become vested and entitled to that money. Something to keep in mind with your 401K account is that the balance will vary according to profits or losses in the market and the investments you make.

Tax Advantages of a 401K Account

There are several tax advantages of 401K plans, including the fact that contributions to the plan are typically made with pretax dollars, meaning that they are not subject to income taxes. Moreover, the earnings on the investments within the 401K grow tax-deferred, meaning that you will not have to pay taxes on them until you withdraw the money from the account. Additionally, if you withdraw money from your 401K account before you reach age 59 1/2, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to the regular income taxes that you will owe on the withdrawal.

Some of the tax advantages of 401K plans include the following:

  • Employees may be able to deduct contributions from their income taxes.
  • Employers may be able to take a tax deduction for contributions made to the plan.
  • Earnings on investments in the plan may grow tax-deferred.
  • Withdrawals from the plan may be taxed at lower rates than ordinary income.

Key Characteristics

There are a few key characteristics that 401K plans typically have:

  • An employer-sponsored retirement savings plan.
  • A tax-advantaged way to save for retirement.
  • Allows employees to contribute a portion of their paycheck to the plan.
  • Employer may match a certain percentage of employee contributions.
  • Investment options within the plan.
  • The most common investment plans in a 401K plan are mutual funds, index funds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

What is a Pension Plan?

A pension is a retirement plan that ensures a set monthly payout after retirement and is sponsored by an employer. This could be a fixed sum of money, such as $1,500 per month, or it might be an amount determined by a formula that takes your pay and the number of years you’ve worked for the company into account.

These consistent monthly payments, which begin upon retirement and continue for the rest of your life, are guaranteed by your company. Depending on your plan, a spouse or beneficiary may continue to receive some of these benefits after your passing. Before you are fully vested, or qualified to receive the entire pension amount, you often need to work for the company for a predetermined number of years.

Defined-Benefit vs. Defined Contribution

In general, there are two main types of pension plans: a defined-benefit plan and a defined contribution plan. These two plans may sounds similar however, they both offer different outcomes. In a defined benefit plan, the employer guarantees that the employee will receive a specific monthly payment after retirement for life, regardless of the performance of the investment pool. In a defined contribution plan, the employer commits to making a specific contribution for each worker who is covered by the plan. This may be matched by contributions made by the employee. 

Despite the fact that pension plans have been largely replaced by 401K plans, which are less costly to the employer, pension plans are still in use today by many companies. In fact, according to the 2021 U.S. Census, roughly 15% of private employees in the U.S., are covered by a defined-benefit plan today.

Key Characteristics

There are many different types of pension plans, but most have a few common features:

  • They are sponsored by an employer or a union.
  • They are usually tax-deferred, meaning that the money you contribute is not taxed until you withdraw it.
  • They often have vesting periods, meaning that you must stay with the company or union for a certain amount of time before you are fully vested and can collect the full payout.
  • They often have early withdrawal penalties, meaning that if you withdraw the money before you reach retirement age, you may have to pay taxes or a penalty on it.
  • There are two main types of pension plans: the defined benefit and the defined contribution plan.
  • A defined benefit plan guarantees a set monthly payment for life upon retirement.
  • A defined contribution plan involves an investment account that grows throughout the employee’s working years. The payout is available upon retirement.

Pros of 401K

Some pros of 401K plans are that they:

  • Offer tax benefits
  • Have employer matching contributions
  • Offer a wide range of investment options

Cons of 401k

Some cons of 401K plans are that they:

  • Have high fees
  • Require long-term commitment
  • Have strict withdrawal rules.

Pros of Pension

Some pros of a pension plan include:

  • A guaranteed income in retirement
  • A supplement to other retirement savings
  • Tax breaks on contributions and earnings
  • Professional management of assets
  • A wide range of investment options
  • Death benefits for surviving spouses and beneficiaries

Cons of Pension

Some cons of a pension plan include:

  • Pension plans can be expensive to maintain.
  • Pension plans may not be able to keep up with inflation.
  • Pension plans may be subject to market volatility.
  • Pension plans may be complex to administer.

Things to Keep in Mind

When comparing a 401K account vs. a pension plan, you can see that the two are very different retirement options. There are a few things you will want to consider when deciding which option in right for you. For example, how long are you planning on working for the company? What is the vesting schedule for the plan? What are the contribution requirements? Lastly, one of the most important questions you will want to ask yourself is what are the investment options, and do they align with your goals? If the plan does not align with your future goals, then you should reconsider what the other options are.

The Bottom Line on 401K vs. Pension Plan

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding between a pension plan or a 401K account, you will want to take all things into consideration. The choice is yours and should depend on the diligent research you’ve done on both options.