Elective Deferrals

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on May 04, 2023

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What Are Elective Deferrals?

Elective deferrals are a key component of many retirement plans. They allow employees to set aside a portion of their income on a pre-tax basis, which can provide significant tax advantages and help individuals save for retirement.

An elective deferral is a voluntary decision made by an employee to contribute a portion of their salary to a qualified retirement plan. These contributions are made before taxes are taken out, reducing the employee's taxable income.

The funds are then invested and allowed to grow tax-deferred until withdrawal during retirement. Elective deferrals play a crucial role in retirement planning, as they allow individuals to save and invest a portion of their income while reducing their current tax liability.

By participating in a retirement plan that allows elective deferrals, employees can accumulate wealth over time and ensure a comfortable retirement. Moreover, many employers offer matching contributions, further increasing the employee's retirement savings potential.

Various retirement plans permit elective deferrals, catering to the needs of different employees and organizations. Some of the most common plans include 401(k), 403(b), and 457(b) plans, as well as SIMPLE IRAs and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

Each plan has its unique features, advantages, and limitations, making it essential to understand the differences before making a decision.

Advantages of Elective Deferrals

Elective deferrals offer several benefits to employees, including tax advantages, employer matching contributions, investment flexibility, and long-term savings potential. These benefits make elective deferrals an attractive option for individuals looking to save for retirement.

Tax Benefits

Elective deferrals offer significant tax benefits to employees, primarily in the form of pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth. Pre-tax contributions lower the employee's taxable income, resulting in reduced current tax liability.

Additionally, the invested funds grow tax-deferred, meaning the earnings are not taxed until the funds are withdrawn during retirement, potentially at a lower tax rate.

Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers offer to match a portion of their employees' elective deferral contributions, effectively providing "free money" for retirement savings.

Matching contributions can vary by employer and plan but typically involve a percentage of the employee's contribution, up to a certain limit. This additional funding can significantly boost an individual's retirement savings over time.

Investment Flexibility

Elective deferral plans often provide a range of investment options, allowing employees to diversify their portfolios and select investments that align with their risk tolerance and financial goals.

Investment choices may include various mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. This flexibility enables individuals to tailor their retirement savings strategy to their unique needs and preferences.

Long-Term Savings Potential

By contributing to an elective deferral plan consistently over time, employees can harness the power of compound interest and accumulate significant wealth for retirement.

With regular contributions and the advantage of tax-deferred growth, elective deferrals can help individuals build a substantial retirement nest egg.

Advantages of Elective Deferrals

Types of Elective Deferral Plans

There are several types of elective deferral plans available, each with its unique features and benefits. Understanding the differences between these plans can help individuals make informed decisions about their retirement savings strategy.

401(k) Plans

401(k) plans are among the most popular types of elective deferral plans, offered by many private-sector employers. They come in two main variations: traditional 401(k) and Roth 401(k).

Traditional 401(k) plans allow employees to contribute pre-tax dollars, while Roth 401(k) plans involve after-tax contributions, with tax-free withdrawals during retirement.

Both options provide tax advantages and a wide range of investment choices, depending on the employee's needs and preferences.

403(b) Plans

403(b) plans are similar to 401(k) plans but are specifically designed for employees of non-profit organizations, public schools, and certain religious institutions.

Like 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans allow pre-tax contributions and offer tax-deferred growth, along with the possibility of employer matching contributions.

Investment options in 403(b) plans may be more limited compared to 401(k) plans but still provide ample opportunities for diversification.

457(b) Plans

457(b) plans are available to state and local government employees, as well as some non-profit organizations. These plans function similarly to 401(k) and 403(b) plans, with pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth.

However, 457(b) plans have unique withdrawal rules that make them more flexible for employees who may need to access their funds before retirement age, without incurring penalties.


A Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA is a retirement plan designed for small businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

SIMPLE IRAs allow employees to make pre-tax contributions and provide mandatory employer contributions, either through matching or non-elective contributions. Investment options in a SIMPLE IRA are typically broader than those in 401(k) and 403(b) plans, but contribution limits are lower.

Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

The Thrift Savings Plan is a retirement plan specifically for federal employees and members of the uniformed services.

TSP offers similar benefits to 401(k) plans, with pre-tax contributions, tax-deferred growth, and a range of investment options. Additionally, the TSP features low administrative costs, making it an attractive option for eligible employees.

Contribution Limits and Rules

Elective deferral plans come with specific contribution limits and rules that employees should be aware of when planning their retirement savings strategy.

Annual Contribution Limits

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sets annual contribution limits for elective deferral plans, which may be adjusted for inflation each year. Employees should be aware of these limits to avoid exceeding the allowable contributions and potentially incurring penalties or tax implications.

Catch-Up Contributions for Older Workers

Employees aged 50 or older are allowed to make additional "catch-up" contributions to their elective deferral plans, above the standard annual limits. These catch-up contributions provide an opportunity for older workers to boost their retirement savings as they approach retirement age.

Highly Compensated Employee Rules

Highly compensated employees (HCEs) may face additional restrictions on their elective deferral contributions to ensure that retirement plans maintain compliance with non-discrimination rules.

HCEs should be aware of these rules and limitations to avoid potential penalties or plan disqualification.

Rollovers and Transfers

Employees who change jobs or wish to consolidate their retirement savings may need to rollover or transfer their elective deferral plan assets.

Understanding the rules and regulations surrounding rollovers and transfers can help employees avoid tax penalties and maintain the tax advantages of their retirement savings.

Withdrawal Rules and Penalties

Elective deferral plans have specific withdrawal rules and penalties that employees should be aware of when planning for retirement income.

Age Requirements for Withdrawals

Generally, employees must be at least 59½ years old to withdraw funds from their elective deferral plans without incurring a penalty. Withdrawing funds before reaching the required age can result in a 10% early withdrawal penalty, in addition to income taxes on the withdrawn amount.

Early Withdrawal Penalties

In most cases, early withdrawals from elective deferral plans are subject to a 10% penalty, in addition to income taxes on the withdrawn amount. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, allowing penalty-free withdrawals under specific circumstances.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

Once an employee reaches the age of 72, they must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their elective deferral plans.

RMDs are calculated based on the account balance and the employee's life expectancy, ensuring that the retirement savings are distributed over the employee's remaining lifetime. Failing to take RMDs can result in substantial tax penalties.

Special Circumstances for Penalty-Free Withdrawals

Certain exceptions allow employees to make penalty-free withdrawals from their elective deferral plans before reaching the age of 59½.

These exceptions may include financial hardship, disability, qualifying education expenses, or first-time home purchases, among others. Employees should carefully review the rules and regulations surrounding these exceptions to avoid unintended tax consequences.

Choosing the Right Elective Deferral Plan

Selecting the appropriate elective deferral plan is crucial for maximizing retirement savings and meeting personal financial goals.

Assessing Personal Financial Goals

Employees should start by evaluating their financial objectives, risk tolerance, and time horizon for retirement. This assessment will help individuals determine the most suitable elective deferral plan and investment strategy for their unique circumstances.

Evaluating Investment Options

Employees should consider the range of investment options available within each elective deferral plan, as well as the potential risks and returns associated with those options.

A diversified portfolio that aligns with the employee's risk tolerance and financial goals can help maximize retirement savings and minimize investment risks.

Understanding Fees and Expenses

Elective deferral plans may have various fees and expenses associated with administration, investment management, and other services.

Employees should carefully review and compare the costs of different plans to ensure they select a plan that provides the best value for their retirement savings.

Seeking Professional Advice

Employees may benefit from consulting with a financial advisor or retirement planning expert to help them choose the most appropriate elective deferral plan and investment strategy.

A professional can provide personalized advice and guidance based on the employee's unique financial situation and goals.


Elective deferrals play a critical role in retirement planning, offering tax advantages, employer matching contributions, investment flexibility, and long-term savings potential.

By understanding the various types of elective deferral plans, contribution limits and rules, withdrawal regulations, and factors to consider when choosing a plan, employees can make informed decisions about their retirement savings and work toward a secure financial future.

Additionally, employers should actively encourage and educate their employees about the benefits of elective deferrals to promote financial wellness and retirement readiness within their organizations.

Elective Deferrals FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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