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How Do I Invest Money in My 403(b)?

Understanding the 403(b) Plan

While the 403(b) plan might not be as well-known as its counterpart, the 401(k) plan, it shares several similarities and offers unique benefits to eligible employees. The 403(b) plan is a tax-advantaged retirement savings program primarily offered to public school, college, and university employees, as well as those working in certain tax-exempt organizations, including churches and charities.

Just like a 401(k) plan, the 403(b) plan allows participants to save for retirement in a tax-efficient manner. However, there are key differences between the two that one should understand when considering a 403(b) plan investment.

Initiating Your 403(b) Plan Investment

Investing in a 403(b) plan begins with contributions made through payroll deductions. With your consent, a specified percentage of your salary is transferred to your 403(b) account. This arrangement can be set up by communicating with your payroll department or the plan custodian company.

The 403(b) plan often permits both pre-tax and after-tax (Roth-style) contributions, providing flexibility in your retirement savings strategy. Regardless of the nature of your contribution, the funds will be allocated according to your chosen investment distribution with the custodian or vendor responsible for managing the plan's investments.

Navigating Your Investment Options

The investment alternatives available in a 403(b) plan typically include mutual funds and annuities. The choices are agreed upon by the vendors and your employer, leaving the responsibility of selection and any associated investment risk on the employees.

Due to the inherent risk associated with investments, it's essential to evaluate your investment options carefully. Despite this, many investors find it challenging to thoroughly assess the offerings in their 403(b) plans due to time constraints, lack of patience, or limited knowledge.

Exploring the Annuity Option

A distinctive feature of the 403(b) plan is the inclusion of annuities as an investment option. When the 403(b) plan was established in 1958, it was referred to as a tax-sheltered annuity. While times have changed and 403(b) plans now offer a broad range of mutual funds akin to those available in 401(k) plans, annuities continue to be a staple feature.

However, many financial advisors caution against investing in annuities within a 403(b) plan or any other tax-deferred investment plans. This recommendation stems from various factors, including the complex structure, potential fees, and other associated risks of annuities.

Opting for a Conservative Approach

For risk-averse individuals, many 403(b) plans offer a money market fund as one of the investment options. This low-risk alternative allows you to secure your contribution and any matching contributions from your employer, providing a safer but potentially lower return compared to the potentially volatile mutual funds that invest in stocks and bonds.

Maximizing Employer Contributions

A major benefit of investing in a 403(b) plan is the potential for employer matching contributions. This essentially offers free money towards your retirement savings, a benefit too significant to pass up regardless of your risk tolerance or financial status.

Embracing the Potential of the 403(b) Plan

Although the 403(b) plan may not be as widely recognized as the 401(k) plan, it offers a myriad of benefits for those eligible to participate. Understanding how to make contributions, navigate your investment options, and maximize the potential benefits will enable you to effectively leverage the advantages of a 403(b) plan.

Investing in a 403(b) is done by making contributions via payroll deductions and selecting investment options from among the available choices with your custodian.

Payroll deductions on a pretax basis are routed into your 403(b) account with your consent. This can be done by telling the payroll department what percentage of your compensation you would like to send there, or by telling the plan custodian company, who tells your payroll department.

It can get interesting if you have multiple vendors within the same plan, but this is gradually becoming outdated. This has been allowed because many 403(b)s are not subject to ERISA, and the freedom from oversight and auditing requirements has made these plans a little more creative than the 401(k)s you may be more familiar with.

Some 403(b)s also allow after-tax, Roth-style contributions. Whether pretax or post-tax, your money will be directed into the investment allocation that you have chosen with the vendor or custodian that holds the plan’s investments.

The investment options available to you in your plan are agreed-upon by the vendors and your employer. Beyond that, the freedom to choose, and the investment risk, is the employees.

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