403b pearls of wisdom for teachers

Retirement Pearls of Wisdom for Teachers

Ask Questions, Save Money When It Comes to Your 403(b)

Let’s be honest. Life is busy. Sometimes even knowing what types of retirement options are available to you—or even which ones you have–is difficult enough, without allocating the time to really understand each. Perhaps all too often, things are left to auto-pilot when it comes to paycheck designations – you opt-in because you can. But in the case of teacher’s 403(b) retirement plans, brushing up on the specifics of yours may be well worth your effort. In fact, it can potentially gain you thousands more in the long run – and really takes little more than just some smart homework. So…. let’s start with the very basics, and get you on track to maximize the money you’re striving to sock away for later, or at the very least, to become aware of the power you hold toward such noble pursuits in the future.

Retirement 101:

403(b) Vocab Terms for Teachers:

Tax-Deferred
Annuity
Provider
403b Plan Products

What IS a 403(b) plan?
A 403(b) is a retirement savings program much like a 401k, but has special allowances tailored specifically to the teaching profession and a few others (because they have certain exemptions as public educational institutions, not-for-profits or as certain types of churches). When you work as a teacher, it is likely your school district employer will offer you the opportunity to contribute to a 403(b), helping you save for retirement, reducing your taxable income, potentially matching your funds (if you’re lucky enough to have an employer choosing to offer this) and in many cases, allowing you to decide your amount of contribution up to a maximum set by the IRS. What makes a 403(b) special is that you do not need to pay taxes on the money contributed into the account now (it’s tax-deferred). When the money begins to produce regular pay outs in the future, assumably at the time of retirement, you will then be taxed on it as regular income–but as a retiree and typically at a lower rate.

Do I have one?
If you work as a teacher, chances are you have had the opportunity to enroll in your district’s plan, or one of the plans they offer if multiple. But just because your employer has chosen a plan for you and you’ve opted in with reductions from your paychecks, it doesn’t necessarily mean these work best for you as is. In fact, it may not, as employers choose plans for a variety of reasons supporting their best interests—and these may not necessarily mesh with yours. This doesn’t always mean you’re locked into their default settings; sometimes switching to another “provider” for your plan (plans are set up for employers by different vendors) is allowed–and can help you to pursue optimal dollars for the future, once able to properly compare alternatives and their different offerings. Similarly, sometimes you can change some of the options within your plan. You’re already doing the hard work daily. Why not reap the most reward that is in essence, your earned cash?

What are some common types of 403(b)’s?
403(b) plans can either place your pre-tax investment dollars into annuities or mutual funds so they hopefully will grow over time. Such investments are chosen and managed by the vendor which provides your employer’s plan, and which manages the portfolio therein; diversifying investments based on what they feel will serve best for their clients, ensuring, in theory, good growth over time and reasonably low risk, and the benefit of relatively safe, low-maintenance investing.

Who are some 403(b) Providers?
Simply put, providers can be institutions like insurance companies, investment firms that run mutual funds or retirement account custodians that set up diversified 403(b) plan products and offer them to employers. These providers set up rules for the plan including minimum contributions, possible commissions for their investing services, time before payout is available without penalty, annual and other fees, if there might be a Roth 403b feature (look out for our future post explaining this type of offering), etc., and they pick investment portfolios in which to hopefully grow your money while it “sits.” Examples are financially savvy companies like Fidelity, Vanguard, FTJ Fundchoice and Aspire Financial.

BUT, while 403(b) individual terms and conditions are necessary, and important components of a plan…. these are factors you should ALWAYS check into! Here’s why:

Providers are not equal.
Although your employer chooses a provider for your 403(b) as previously mentioned, ranging from insurance companies offering annuities to financial institutions managing mutual funds to combination accounts, some districts allow you to override this choice and pick your own; some do not. Finding out what your specific circumstance is can be accomplished by asking a simple question of HR, and then doing some minimal research on the benefits of each of the alternative providers and what they offer, if you’re allowed a choice. Everyone has different investment strategies and goals, so it is important to make sure you are reasonably informed about where your money is going and why. We’ve found that many teachers that come to us have typically been invested in annuities and don’t have any idea about how much has been vested in these to date, or how their money is being managed within the constructs of their plan. It is a good idea to check into how experienced the investors running your plan’s portfolio are, and what their reputation is.

“Often times, clients come to us with 403(b) accounts that are annuities. These may contain fees for features you may not even need or want – depleting your future nest egg as they add up over years. Sometimes, it takes little more than some polite inquiring to identify these and potentially do something about them.”

403b plans and specifically, annuities, often have hidden fees written in.
This is certainly not uncommon. It takes but a simple but carefully-worded letter (see our post Do You Know How Much You Are Paying in Retirement Fees?) to identify if and what extraneous fees exist in your plan, if they are warranted for your goals and circumstances or should they be unnecessary for you – and believe it or not, this is often the case! Of further note, different providers have different operating rules and investment objectives which can vary greatly among product vendors and across investments. Some accounts impose surrender charges or restrictions on early withdrawals. It can be very useful to know what yours are now, should you feel they are not in line with what your needs or desires might be in the future. Additionally, some vendors impose commission fees on investment earnings, and some do not or have lower ones. Imagine! You could spend years contributing to a plan that may not serve you in the long run, or paying portions of your earnings for things that don’t apply to you or that you really don’t need–and which you can very simply, opt out of, or not be charged for in a different plan. These things add up and detract from the money you get when you retire, compounded monthly… over years into what can be quite a large sum of money by the time you reach withdrawal age! This is why it is important you find out as much as you can about the specific 403(b) you have and make a few smart decisions now. Examples include, discerning and choosing between different types of annuities that may carry varying degrees of risk, or, changing from a plan that owns multiple mutual funds requiring additional fees – to one that avoids these in its portfolio if preferable.

“It is possible to be invested in a minimally advantageous 403(b) plan, with among potential negatives exorbitant fees, unreasonable commissions that are being charged on your gains, penalties for making changes, or even fund investments that the vendor is being paid to make over others. In fact, sometimes a Provider might push its lead product to districts over its best product because it will benefit their own bottom line.”

It’s worth the effort.
Studying up on different types of providers can be an annoyance, but is also relatively easy and can be followed up by educating yourself on what questions to ask while you compare potential plans. Look for
future posts here, like What Questions to Ask When You Compare 403b Providers and What to Do if You’re Unhappy with Your 403b Provider. Should you need help weeding through that jungle, or if you simply would rather have someone do the work for you, we are here to help and are already familiar with the different common area providers and their plans.

403(b)s can be self-directed investing.
While most people are happy to let their provider manage their money and investments once contributed to the 403(b), it is important to understand that in some cases, you can as well take a more active role in choosing exactly what mutual funds your money goes in to. If one is more comfortable with high risk, or has a good grasp of the market and investments, this might be something to consider if an available option for you. Either way, understanding that 403(b)s can be self-directed is an important fact to keep in mind over the term of your investing.

Don’t Settle for Less–Pursue That Potentially Higher Return on Investment!

Don’t let ignorance or a busy lifestyle stand in the way of protecting your future. You know what they say – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Now that you’ve read up on 403(b)’s, it’s time to take some action and do a little hand raising yourself! Once you’ve garnered some basic information about what type of account you have, and what type of fees you might be paying, you can take steps to better secure your financial situation should it be warranted. And we are here to help.

Don’t Want to Go It Alone or Need Some Help? We’re Here.

Please know that if you have any questions along your journey or if you’d like some advice or expert assistance, or even for us to do the hard work for you, we’re available to assist. Give a call to our office at (845) 981-7300 today or continue consulting our blog and future posts on this important topic, and empower yourself to take actions in your best interest toward the future you deserve. Good luck!


Investing involves risks, including the loss of principal.

Fixed and variable annuities are suitable for long-term investing, such as retirement investing. Gains from tax-deferred investments are taxable as ordinary income upon withdrawal. Guarantees are based on the claims paying ability of the issuing company. Withdrawals made prior to age 59 are subject to a 10% IRS penalty tax and surrender charges may apply. Variable annuities are subject to market risk and may lose value.

This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal or investment advice. If you are seeking investment advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.