10 Differences Between 401k and 401a

What is a 401k?

A 401k is a retirement savings plan sponsored by employers that allows employees to contribute a portion of their salary to a tax-advantaged investment account. It is one of the most popular retirement savings options in the United States.

Examples of 401k:

  • John works for a large corporation and contributes a percentage of his salary to his 401k account. His employer matches his contributions up to 5%.
  • Jane is a self-employed freelancer and has set up a solo 401k plan to save for retirement. She contributes a fixed amount each month.

Uses of 401k:

A 401k offers several benefits and uses:

  • Tax advantages: Contributions are made on a pre-tax basis, reducing the employee’s taxable income.
  • Employer matching contributions: Many employers provide a matching contribution to incentivize employees to save.
  • Investment options: 401k plans usually offer a range of investment options, allowing employees to grow their savings.
  • Portability: When changing jobs, employees can roll over their 401k balance to a new employer’s plan or an individual retirement account (IRA).

What is a 401a?

A 401a is another type of employer-sponsored retirement plan, but it differs in structure and eligibility criteria compared to a 401k. It is commonly used by government and nonprofit organizations to provide retirement benefits to their employees.

Examples of 401a:

  • Sarah is a public school teacher and is offered a 401a plan by her school district. The district contributes a fixed percentage of her salary to her retirement account.
  • Mark works for a non-profit organization and has a 401a plan. His employer matches his contributions up to a certain percentage of his salary.

Uses of 401a:

401a plans have specific uses and advantages:

  • Employer contributions: Employers commonly make contributions to 401a plans, either matching the employee’s contributions or providing a fixed percentage of the salary.
  • Tax-deferred growth: Similar to a 401k, contributions to a 401a plan grow on a tax-deferred basis, allowing the account balance to grow faster.
  • Vesting schedule: Some 401a plans have a vesting schedule, meaning that employees need to stay with the employer for a specific period to fully own the contributions made by the employer.

Differences Table:

Difference Area 401k 401a
Eligibility Available to employees of any organization, subject to employer participation. Commonly used by government and nonprofit organizations for their employees.
Contribution Limits Subject to annual limits set by the IRS ($19,500 in 2021, with catch-up contributions for individuals aged 50 or older). May have different contribution limits determined by the employer.
Employer Matching Employer may match a portion of an employee’s contributions, up to a certain percentage. Similar to a 401k, employer contributions are possible, but the terms may vary.
Portability Can be rolled over into an IRA or another employer’s 401k plan upon leaving the job. Rollovers to an IRA are possible, but roll overs to another 401a plan require specific conditions.
Vesting Schedule May have a vesting schedule where employees gradually gain ownership of employer contributions. Some 401a plans have vesting schedules, requiring a certain length of service to fully own the employer contributions.
Plan Sponsor Offered by both for-profit and nonprofit employers. Commonly used by government and nonprofit organizations.
Employee Control Over Investment Options Employees have a range of investment options to choose from. Investment options may be more limited compared to a 401k.
Employee Contributions Contributions are often made on a pre-tax basis. Contributions can be pre-tax, post-tax, or a combination of both, based on the plan.
Tax Treatment of Distributions Taxed as ordinary income upon withdrawal during retirement. Taxed as ordinary income upon withdrawal during retirement.
Withdrawal Rules Subject to penalty if withdrawn before age 59 1/2, with some exceptions. Subject to penalty if withdrawn before age 59 1/2, with some exceptions.


In summary, both 401k and 401a are retirement savings plans offered by employers, but they differ in terms of eligibility, contribution limits, employer matching, investment options, and plan sponsor. While 401k plans are commonly available to employees of any organization, 401a plans are more prevalent in government and nonprofit sectors. Understanding the features and differences between these retirement plans can help individuals make informed decisions about their retirement savings strategies.

People Also Ask:

1. Can I contribute to both a 401k and a 401a?
Yes, if you are eligible for both plans, you can contribute to both a 401k and a 401a, as long as the total contributions to each plan do not exceed the IRS limits.

2. Are withdrawals from 401k and 401a plans taxed?
Yes, distributions from both 401k and 401a plans are taxed as ordinary income when withdrawn during retirement.

3. Can I roll over my 401k into a 401a?
Rolling over a 401k into a 401a plan is possible, but it requires specific conditions set by the employer offering the 401a plan. Most commonly, rollovers are made into an individual retirement account (IRA) or another employer’s 401k plan.

4. Do both 401k and 401a plans offer employer matching contributions?
Yes, both 401k and 401a plans can offer employer matching contributions. However, the terms and percentage of matching contributions may vary based on the plan and employer.

5. Which plan is better: 401k or 401a?
The suitability of a 401k or a 401a plan depends on various factors, including your employment sector, employer contribution policy, investment options, and personal financial goals. It is recommended to consider these factors and consult a financial advisor to determine the best retirement savings plan for your specific circumstances.

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