401(k) Cafeteria Plan

A 401(k) cafeteria plan allows employees who are participating in their employer’s 401(k) plan to also choose additional types of benefits from a smorgasbord of options on a pretax basis.

These benefits can include:

  • Group term life insurance
  • Flexible savings accounts and health savings accounts
  • Disability insurance
  • Health or other types of medical insurance such as for critical, chronic or long-term care coverage
  • Adoption assistance
  • Qualified legal group services
  • Stock purchase plans
  • Other types of retirement savings accounts such as a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan
  • Dependent care assistance
  • Other miscellaneous benefits such as cash benefits, commuting and/or parking assistance or gym memberships

Cafeteria plans are organized under Section 125 of the Internal Revenue Code and thus are often called “Section 125 plans” or “flexible benefits plans.”

This flexibility, however, makes these plans more difficult to administer than other types of benefit plans.

Section 125 plans are typically more complex in design than other more straightforward types of employee benefit programs.

In principle, Section 125 plans are designed to prevent any type of deferment of employee income or compensation except through a 401(k) or other type of qualified retirement savings plan.

Who Are Cafeteria Plans For?

Cafeteria plans are well-suited for larger companies that have a diversified workforce made up of single employees, employees with spouses and/or families, older workers and recent graduates.

This type of plan can offer useful benefits to employees of all types who have differing needs and goals.

For example, a young single college graduate may be focused primarily on getting out of debt or saving for retirement, while a married employee with several children is more likely to be interested in medical coverage and medical savings accounts.

Tax Considerations

Cafeteria plans are offered on a pretax basis, which leverages their value to employees.

Section 125 of the Internal Revenue Code states that the amount of money that an employee contributes to cafeteria plan benefits is not factored into that employee’s gross income calculation.

No Social Security or Medicare taxes are deducted from Section 125 contributions except under certain specific circumstances.

Contributions and Withdrawals

At the beginning of each year, Section 125 plan participants must decide how much money they are going to contribute to their plan for the year.

This amount is then divided equally among pay periods and deducted from the employer’s pay.

Any amount that the employee allocates to the plan that is not spent by the end of the year is forfeited.

If an employee uses up their full allocation of plan contributions and then leaves the company during the year, then the employer has to absorb the loss of unpaid contributions.

401(k) Cafeteria Plan FAQs

A 401(k) plan is a retirement plan offered by an employer designed to help employees save for retirement.
A 401(k) cafeteria plan allows employees who are participating in their employer’s 401(k) plan to also choose additional types of benefits from a smorgasbord of options on a pretax basis.
With a Roth 401(k), taxes are paid as money is put into the retirement account. With a traditional 401(k), taxes are paid as money is taken out.
Alternatives to 401(k) plans include traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pension plans (if your employer offers one), and 403(b) retirement plans for employees of non-profit organizations.
These plans are sometimes referred to as Section 125 Plan (from the applicable IRS code) or a flexible benefits plan.

What Is a 401(k) Plan?

401(k) Meaning

The 401(k) retirement savings account got its name from the Revenue Act of 1978, where an addition to the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) code was added in section 401(k).

Consequently, 401(k) does not stand for anything except for the section of IRS tax code it was created in.

Traditional 401(k) vs Roth 401(k)

There are two types of 401(k) plans: Traditional and Roth 401(k)s.

The traditional 401(k), named after the relevant section of the IRS code, has been around since 1978.

With this plan, any contributions you make to the 401(k) account will reduce your income taxes for that year and will be taxed when they are withdrawn.

Roth 401(k)s, named after former senator William Roth of Delaware, were introduced in 2006.

Unlike a traditional 401(k), all contributions are made with after-tax dollars and the funds in the Roth 401(k) account accrue tax free.

Typically, employees can take advantage of both plans at the same time, which is recommended among financial advisors to maximize retirement savings.

Because of the way the contribution limits work, it is possible to invest different amounts into each account, even year-to-year, so long as the total contribution does not exceed the set limit.

Contributing to Your 401(k) Retirement Plan

Contributing to a 401(k) plan is traditionally done through one’s employer.

Typically, the employer will automatically enroll you in a 401(k) that you may contribute to at your discretion.

If you are self-employed, you may enroll in a 401(k) plan through an online broker, such as TD Ameritrade.

If your employer offers both types of 401(k) accounts, then you will most likely be able to contribute to either or both at your discretion.

To reiterate, with a traditional 401(k), making a contribution reduces your income taxes for that year, saving you money in the short term, but the funds will be taxed when they are withdrawn.

With a Roth 401(k), your contributions can be made only after taxation, which costs more in the short term, but the funds will be tax free when you withdraw them.

Because of this, deciding which plan will benefit you more involves figuring out in what tax bracket you will be when you retire.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement, then a traditional 401(k) may help you more in the long term.

You will be able to take advantage of the immediate tax break while your taxes are higher, while minimizing the portion taken out of your withdrawal once you move to a lower tax bracket.

On the other hand, a Roth 401(k) may be more advantageous if you expect the opposite to be true.

In that case, you can opt to bite the bullet on heavy taxation today, but avoid a higher tax burden if your tax bracket moves up.

Check out this article from Forbes to see the IRS tax rate tables for 2020, but remember that they are subject to change.

A smart move may be to hedge your bets and divide your contributions between the two types of IRAs.

If your employer allows you to add funds to both a traditional and Roth 401(k), then doing so reduces the potential risks of each.

In this case, you will also have the ability to decide what proportion of your income goes into each account, meaning that as you near retirement and have a clearer idea of what position you will be in, you can put more into one or the other.

When you do decide which avenue to take, make sure to thoroughly evaluate your decision.

Moving funds from one account to another, such as from a traditional to a Roth 401(k), is time consuming and expensive, if even possible.

Likewise, transferring a 401(k) from one employer to another in the event of a job change is also tricky.

You want to make sure that when you put money into your plan, it will be able to sit undisturbed for a very long time.

Pension vs 401(k)


Pensions are similar to a 401(k), but are a liability to a company.

If an employer offers an employee a pension, it means that they are promising to pay out a set amount of money to the employee at the time of their retirement.

There is typically no option to grow this amount, but it also does not require any financial investment from the employee.

Pensions, also referred to as defined-benefit plans, are becoming increasingly rare because it puts the financial burden of offering a retirement fund for employees entirely on the employer.

401(k)s, which are also called defined-contribution plans, take some of the financial pressure off of an employer, while also allowing employees to potentially earn a larger retirement package than they would have with a pension.

How Much Should I Contribute to My 401(k)?

Most financial experts say you should contribute around 10%-15% of your monthly gross income to a retirement savings account, including but not limited to a 401(k).

There are limits on how much you can contribute to it that are outlined in detail below.

There are two methods of contributing funds to your 401(k).

The main way of adding new funds to your account is to contribute a portion of your own income directly.

This is usually done through automatic payroll withholding (i.e. the amount that you wish to contribute, counting all adjustments for taxation, is simply withheld when receiving payment and automatically put into a 401(k)).

The system mandates that the majority of direct financial contributions will come from your own pocket.

It is essential that, when making contributions, you consider the trajectory of the specific investments you are making to increase the likelihood of a positive return.

The second method comes from deposits that an employer matches.

Usually employers will match a deposit based on a set formula, such as 50 cents per dollar contributed by the employee.

However, employers are only able to contribute to a traditional 401(k), not a Roth 401(k) plan.

This is especially important to keep in mind if you want to utilize both types of plans.

A key variable to keep in mind is that there are set limits for how much you can add to a 401(k) in a single year.

For employees under 50 years of age, this amount is $19,500, as of 2020. For employees over 50 years of age, the amount is $25,000.

If you have a traditional 401(k), you can also elect to make non-deductible after-tax contributions.

The absolute limit, counting this choice and all employer contributions, is $57,000 for employees under 50, and $63,000 for those over 50 as of 2019.

401(k) Plan FAQs