Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Elective-Deferral Contribution: What It Is, How It Works, Limits

What Is an Elective-Deferral Contribution?

An elective-deferral contribution is made directly from an employee's salary to his or her employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. The employee must authorize the transaction before the contribution can be deducted.

Elective deferrals can be made on a pre-tax or after-tax basis if an employer allows them. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) establishes limits on how much an employee can defer or contribute to a qualified retirement plan. An elective-deferral contribution is also known as a salary-deferral or salary-reduction contribution.

Key Takeaways

  • An elective-deferral contribution is a portion of an employee's salary that's withheld and transferred into a retirement plan such as a 401(k).
  • Elective deferrals can be made on a pre-tax or after-tax basis if an employer allows.
  • The IRS limits how much you can contribute to a qualified retirement plan.
  • Individuals under the age of 50 can contribute up to $20,500 into a 401(k) in 2022 and $22,500 in 2023.
  • For 2022, people 50 and above can make catch-up contributions of an additional $6,500 for a total of $26,000. For 2023, the catch-up contribution increases to $7,500, for a total of $30,000.

How an Elective-Deferral Contribution Works

Elective-deferral contributions made into traditional 401(k) plans are made on a pre-tax or tax-deferred basis, effectively reducing an employee's taxable income. Suppose an individual making $40,000 a year decides to contribute $100 per month into their 401(k). These deferrals total $1,200 per year. As a result, the employee's pay is taxed at $38,800 that year instead of $40,000. 

Since there's a tax-deduction upfront, any distributions are taxed at the income tax rate for the retiree at the time of withdrawal. Several restrictions apply as to when and under what circumstances an employee can make withdrawals from an employer-sponsored retirement plan. For example, an additional 10% penalty tax may apply if an individual makes a withdrawal before age 59½—assuming the employee meets the conditions that allow him or her to take an early distribution. State and local taxes may also be assessed for early withdrawals.

Some employers allow workers to contribute toward Roth 401(k) plans. Contributions made to these plans are made on an after-tax basis. After tax-basis means the funds are taxed before they were deposited into the retirement plan. Since there's no pre-tax benefit with Roth 401(k)s, employees can withdraw deferrals tax-free as long as they're over the age of 59½.

Unlike Roth IRAs, Roth 401(k)s are not subject to RMDs during the owner's lifetime.

Elective-Deferral Contribution Limits

The IRS has limits on how much money can be contributed to an employee's qualified retirement plan.

Employee Contribution Limit

For 2022 and 2023, individuals under the age of 50 can contribute up to $20,500 and $22,500 respectively into a 401(k). Those aged 50 and above can make catch-up contributions of an additional $6,500 ($7,500 for 2023) for a total of $27,000 ($30,000 for 2023). These rules apply to Roth 401(k)s as well.

IRS rules also apply if you have multiple 401(k) accounts. This means if a person under 50 invests in a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) plan, they can make elective-deferral contributions of up to $20,500 for 2022 and $22,500 for 2023.

Employee and Employer Total Contribution Limit

The rules stated earlier apply only to elective-deferral contributions. They do not apply to the matching contributions from an employer, nonelective employee contributions, or any allocations of forfeitures. The IRS limits the total amount that can be contributed to an employee's retirement plan from all sources, including the employer's matching and the employee's contributions.

The total contributions to an employee's retirement plan from both the employee and employer cannot exceed the lesser of:

  • 100% of the participant's compensation
  • $61,000 or $67,500, including catch-up contributions for those aged 50 and over in 2022
  • $66,000 or $73,500, including catch-up contributions for those aged 50 and over in 2023
Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Contributions."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) limit increases to $22,500 for 2023, IRA limit rises to $6,500.”

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Catch-Up Contributions."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plan Overview."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - General Distribution Rules."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plans FAQs on Designated Roth Accounts."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "How Much Salary Can You Defer if You’re Eligible for More than One Retirement Plan?"

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - 401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits."

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