A Guide to Qualified Retirement Plans

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Saving for retirement is an important financial goal and there are different options when it comes to where to invest. A qualified retirement plan can make it easier to build wealth for the long term, while enjoying some significant tax benefits.

Qualified retirement plans must meet Internal Revenue Code standards for form and operation under Section 401(a). If you have a retirement plan at work, it’s most likely qualified. But not every retirement account falls under this umbrella and those that don’t are deemed “non-qualified.”

So just what is a qualified retirement plan and how is it different from a non-qualified retirement plan?
Understanding the nuances of these terms can help you better shape your retirement plan for growing wealth.

What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan?

Qualified retirement plans allow you to save money for retirement from your income on a tax-deferred basis. These plans are managed according to Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) standards.

The IRS has specific rules for what constitutes a qualified retirement plan and what doesn’t. Public employers can set up a qualified retirement plan as long as these conditions are met:

•  Employer contributions are deferred from income tax until they’re distributed and are exempt from social security and Medicare tax
•  Employer contributions are subject to FICA tax
•  Employee contributions are subject to both income and FICA tax

Following those guidelines, qualified retirement plans can include:

•  Defined benefit plans (such as traditional pension plans)
•  Defined contribution plans (such as 401(k) plans)
•  Employee stock ownership plans (ESOP)
•  Keogh plans

Section 403(b) plans, which you might have access to if you’re a public school or tax-exempt organization employee, mimic some of the characteristics of qualified retirement plans. But because of the way employer contributions to these plans are taxed the IRS doesn’t count them as qualified plans. The same is true for section 457(b) plans, which are available to public employees.

Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution Plans

When talking about qualified retirement plans and how to use them to invest for the future, it’s important to understand the distinction between defined benefit and defined contribution plans.

ERISA recognizes both types of plans, though they work very differently. A defined benefit plan pays out a specific benefit at retirement. This can either be a set dollar amount or payments based on a percentage of what you earned during your working career.

This type of defined benefit plan is most commonly known as a pension. If you have a pension from a current (or former) employer, you may be able to receive monthly payments from it once you retire, or withdraw the benefits you’ve accumulated in one lump sum. Pension plans can be protected by federal insurance coverage through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

Defined contribution plans, on the other hand, pay out benefits based on how much you (and your employer, if you’re eligible for a company match) contribute to the plan during your working years. The amount of money you can defer from your salary depends on the plan itself, as does the percentage of those contributions your employer will match.

Defined contribution plans include 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, ESOPs and profit-sharing plans. With 401(k)s, that includes options like SIMPLE and solo 401(k) plans. But it’s important to note that while these are all defined contribution plans, they’re not all qualified retirement plans. Of those examples, 403(b) plans wouldn’t enjoy qualified retirement plan tax benefits.

What Is a Non-Qualified Retirement Plan?

Non-qualified retirement plans are retirement plans that aren’t governed by ERISA rules or IRC Section 401(a) standards. These are plans that you can use to invest for retirement outside of your workplace.

Examples of non-qualified retirement plans include:

•  Traditional IRAs
•  Roth IRAs
•  403(b) plans
•  457 plans
•  Deferred compensation plans
•  Self-directed IRAs
•  Executive bonus plans

While these plans can still offer tax benefits, they don’t meet the guidelines to be considered qualified. But they can be useful in saving for retirement, in addition to a qualified plan.

Traditional and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts

Traditional and Roth IRAs allow you to invest for retirement, with annual contribution limits. For 2020 and 2021, the maximum amount you can contribute to either IRA is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re over 50.

Traditional IRAs allow for tax-deductible contributions. These accounts are funded using pre-tax dollars. When you make qualified withdrawals in retirement, they’re taxed at your ordinary income tax rate. IRAs do have required minimum distributions (RMD) starting at age 72.

Roth IRAs don’t offer the benefit of a tax deduction on contributions. But they do allow you to withdraw money tax-free in retirement. Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs do not have RMDs, meaning you don’t have to withdraw money until you want to.

A self-directed IRA is another type of IRA you might consider if you want to invest in stock or mutual fund alternatives, such as real estate. These IRAs require you to follow specific rules for how the money is used to invest, and engaging in any prohibited transactions could result in the loss of IRA tax benefits.

Advantages of Qualified Retirement Plans

Qualified retirement plans can benefit both employers and employees who are interested in saving for retirement.
On the employer side, the benefits include:

•  Being able to claim a tax deduction for matching contributions made on behalf of employees
•  Tax credits and other tax incentives for starting and maintaining a qualified retirement plan
•  Tax-free growth of assets in the plan

Additionally, offering a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), can also be a useful tool for attracting and retaining talent. Employees may be more motivated to accept a position and stay with the company if their benefits package includes a generous 401(k) match.

Employees also enjoy some important benefits by saving money in a qualified plan. Specifically, those benefits include:

•  Tax-deferred growth of contributions
•  Ability to build a diversified portfolio
•  Automatic contributions through payroll deductions
•  Contributions made from taxable income each year
•  Matching contributions from your employer (aka “free money”)
•  ERISA protections against creditor lawsuits

Qualified retirement plans can also feature higher contribution limits than non-qualified plans, such as an IRA. If you have a 401(k), for example, you can contribute up to $19,500 for the 2020 and 2021 tax years, with an additional catch-up contribution of $6,500 for individuals 50 and older.

If you’re able to max out your annual contribution each year, that could allow you to save a substantial amount of money on a tax-deferred basis for retirement. Depending on your income and filing status, you may also be able to make additional contributions to a traditional or Roth IRA.

Making Other Investments Besides a Qualified or Non-Qualified Retirement Plan

Saving money in a qualified retirement plan or a non-qualified retirement plan doesn’t prevent you from investing money in a taxable account. With a brokerage account, you can continue to build your portfolio with no annual contribution limits. The trade-off is that selling assets in your brokerage account could trigger capital gains tax at the time of the sale, whereas qualified accounts allow you to defer paying income tax until retirement.

But an online brokerage account could help with increasing diversification in your portfolio. Qualified plans offered through an employer may limit you to mutual funds, index funds, or target-date funds as investment options. With a brokerage account, on the other hand, you may be able to trade individual stocks or fractional shares, exchange-traded funds, futures, options, or even cryptocurrency. Increasing diversification can help you better manage investment risk during periods of market volatility.

The Takeaway

While a qualified retirement plan allows investors to put away pre-tax money for retirement, a non-qualified plan doesn’t offer tax-deferred benefits. But both can be important parts of a retirement saving strategy.

Regardless of whether you use a qualified retirement plan or a non-qualified plan to grow wealth, the most important thing is getting started. Your workplace plan might be an obvious choice, but if your employer doesn’t offer a qualified plan, you do have other options.

Opening a traditional or Roth IRA online with SoFi Invest®, for example, can help you get a jump on retirement saving. Members can choose from a wide range of investment options or take advantage of a custom-build portfolio to invest.

Find out how an online IRA with SoFi might fit in to your financial plan.


SoFi Invest®
The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . The umbrella term “SoFi Invest” refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.
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For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above, including state licensure of Sofi Digital Assets, LLC, http://www.sofi.com/legal.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.
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How to Invest in Stocks: A Guide to Getting Started

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In 2020, around 55% of American adults invest in the stock market. That’s down from a peak of 65% in 2007 but around the average over the past 10 years. Do you want to get a piece of the action? Before you jump all in, make sure you know the basics of how to invest in stocks. 

A quick note before we dive in: we’re not investment experts or advisors. So if you’re seriously considering investing, you should work with professional brokers, financial advisors or other knowledgeable experts when you invest. That’s especially true if you plan on investing a lot. 

1. Decide on a Budget for Investing

Start by deciding how much you want to use to invest in stocks. Here’s a good starting place—make the potential stocks you’d invest in a percentage of your portfolio. A rule of thumb that many advisors go by is to take 110 or 120 and subtract your age. That’s how much of your investment portfolio you should keep in stocks.

For example, if you’re 30, then you’d keep between 80 and 90% of your portfolio in stocks. If that feels a little aggressive for your financial goals, start with 100 and subtract your age from that.

You also need to decide how much you can invest overall. That depends on your own income, what financial obligations you have and your overall budget. While investing is important, you shouldn’t invest money at the sake of paying your bills, for example.

2. Open an Account for Making Your Investments.

Stocks aren’t like retail goods. You can’t just buy them here and there when you see one you like on display on an ecommerce site. You typically need an account to purchase your stocks through. Some options you can choose include:

  • Opening a brokerage account. This lets you buy and sell stocks through a professional service. You can opt for a brokerage where you do your own research and push the buttons on buying and selling, or you can choose a managed option where someone provides advice or handles these things on your behalf.
  • Using a robo-advisor. This is an app or software program that lets you set goals for your investments and uses machine learning, AI and algorithms to handle your investments. One popular robo-advisor is Acorns, which is an app that lets you round up your purchases with connected debit cards and put the change into investments. While you’re making many micro investments, the total can add up over time.

3. Get Help Creating an Investment Plan

An investment plan is a comprehensive approach to wealth building. Stocks may play an important part in that, but you typically want to ensure you’re well diversified. A diversified portfolio just means you have various types of investments. This way if one isn’t performing well, the others might offer some protection.

One option for getting investment advice is by signing up for an Ellevest account. You pay a monthly membership for this robo investment app, but you gain access to investment and other financial coaching and educational materials.

4. Learn More About Stocks

You don’t have to be a stock expert or financial advisor to have success investing in stocks. But you do have to know a bit about what you’re investing in, especially if you’re going to make very specific stock choices.

You might be familiar with the concept of buying and selling stocks as seen in television and movies. While you canbuy and sell specific stocks because you want to invest in a specific company, you don’t have to invest like that. You can also invest in groups of stocks via stock mutual funds. When you invest in a stock mutual fund, you’re actually buying many different stocks or pieces of stocks. That spreads your risk out over a wider range of assets.

You should also understand the trends associated with the stock market, at least in general. For example, stocks do tend to rise over time barring big economic downturns. On any particular day, the chance that stocks will rise is around 53%. The chance that they will fall is around 47%. But if you look at the long-term, such as a 12-month period, stocks typically have a chance of rising of 75%. 

5. Use Other Tools to Make Investing Easy as You Get Started

Start by getting your immediate financial house in order. Understand what your budget is, and check your credit to ensure there are no surprises looming. You can sign up for ExtraCredit to get a comprehensive understanding of where your credit score is. Once you know where you stand, you can start creating an investment plan with confidence. You can even rely on ExtraCredit’s Reward It feature for cashback offers when signing up for Credit.com partners that provide investment apps and other financial services.

Sign up for ExtraCredit today!

Start Investing in Stocks Today 

So, should you invest? Honestly, that’s up to you. Take a good look at your finances and, if you need guidance, try working with a professional. If you do decide to start investing, start easy and slow. There’s no need to jump all in right at once. Hopefully, if investing works out, you’ll reap some serious rewards. 

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