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Is a 401(k) Match Contribution Tax Deductible?

By Barbara A. Friedberg

The tax benefits of employee contributions to a 401(k) are well-known. The money an employee puts into a company-sponsored retirement plan is either taken out of that year’s taxable income (in the case of a traditional plan) or withdrawn tax-free (in the case of a Roth).

In fact, many employers match a portion of the employee’s contribution, giving them an extra boost toward their retirements. However, this is where the tax implications get a little murky: can employees deduct employer contributions alongside their own? Can companies reduce their own tax bills by matching contributions? We’ll explore the tax implications of matched 401(k)’s from the employee and employer perspective to make sure that 401(k) tax deductions are as clear as they can be.

What matched 401(k)s mean for employees claiming tax deductions

First, let’s break down the two types of employer-based retirement plans: traditional and Roth. With a traditional plan, your contributions are deducted from that year’s taxable income. The funds grow tax-free, and are subject to taxes only when you withdraw. Roth plans are the opposite: contributions are taxed coming in, but aren’t taxed when you withdraw.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your salary this year is $90,000, and you contribute $10,000 to your 401(k).

  • If you contribute to a traditional 401(k), your taxable income for this year is just $80,000.
  • If you contribute to a Roth 401(k), your taxable income for this year is still $90,000.

Now, let’s say that you’re retired, and you withdraw $60,000 from your 401(k).

  • If you withdraw from a traditional 401(k), your taxable income is $60,000.
  • If you withdraw from a Roth 401(k), your taxable income is $0 (because you’ve already paid taxes on contributions into the account).

Generally, if your current income is higher than what you’ll withdraw annually in retirement, you’re better off with a traditional 401(k) – the most common option. However, if your salary places you in a lower tax bracket than you think you’ll be as a retiree (more common for younger people just starting out in their careers), a Roth 401(k) is preferable.

Roth 401(k) vs. Traditional 401(k)

Whether you have a Roth or traditional 401(k), though, employer contributions are taxed when you withdraw. That’s because even if you are putting your contributions in to a post-tax (Roth) 401(k), all employer matches are contributions to a traditional 401(k).

If you have a traditional 401(k), then you and your employer’s contributions will go into the same account, all of which will be taxed when you withdraw. If you have a Roth 401(k), employer contributions will go into a separate traditional account. Your own Roth 401(k) contributions won’t be taxed when you withdraw, but your matched traditional 401(k) contributions will.

Can companies deduct 401(k) matching contributions from corporate taxes?

Employers can receive tax benefits for contributing to 401(k) plans too – the tax code wants to encourage saving for retirement, so employers are offered tax incentives to contribute in order to trigger a 401(k) tax deduction, as well as to offset the cost of setting up retirement plans.

Credits for setting up retirement plans

If you’re a small business and want to implement a retirement plan, you may be eligible for the Credit for Small Employer Pension Plan Startup Costs. Your business might be eligible if it:

  • Has 100 or fewer employees who were paid at least $5,000 in the preceding year,
  • Has at least one plan participant who is a non-highly compensated employee, and
  • Hasn’t offered a retirement plan to the same employees in the past three years

Qualifying businesses can receive a credit for up to 50% of startup costs, up to $500 a year for three years (for a total of $1,500). The credit can be used to offset expenses needed to set up, administer, and educate employees about the plan. (Note: You aren’t allowed to claim the credit and deduct those same expenses.)

Deductions for ongoing contributions

Every dollar a company contributes to employees’ 401(k) plans is tax deductible, providing ongoing tax benefits to companies. In short, the answer to “Can an employer deduct matched contributions to retirement plans?” is a resounding “yes.”

This has some pretty powerful implications for employers debating between matching 401(k) contributions or increasing employees’ wages. If you give an employee a raise or bonus, she’ll pay income and employment taxes on the money, and you’ll also owe Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and other taxes. The average worker faces a 22.4% tax burden, and the average employer an 8.9% tax burden. All told, a $1,000 bonus ends up costing employers an average of $80, while putting only $776 in employees’ pockets.

On the other hand, if you were to offer an additional $1,000 in matched 401(k) contributions, your addition to their retirement funds would grow tax-free until withdrawal. You’ll be able to write off the contribution, and your employees will enjoy preferential tax treatment as their nest eggs grow. Putting extra funds into a matched 401(k) provides tax benefits to both you and your employees.

Offering a 401(k) does more than lower corporate tax bills

In addition to tax write-offs for setting up and contributing to retirement plans, offering a 401(k) provides indirect financial benefits. Employers often hear that retirement plans help lower recruiting costs, increase productivity and cut down on turnover – and the data bears out this claim.

For example, researchers at Boston College found that states which reduced pension benefits had a diminished ability to “maintain a high-quality workforce.” Opinion surveys agree: 41% of small businesses offering a 401(k) cited attracting and retaining workers as a key motivator, according to a survey by Wakefield Research and Capital One ShareBuilder 401(k).

There’s another, more personal benefit to offering retirement plans. Even though you’re an employer, you are also an employee of the company. This means you personally can participate in the 401(k) plan along with everyone else. In fact, the Wakefield survey found that 39% of small business owners cited personal benefits as a reason they offered retirement plans. By helping your employees save for retirement, you’re also building your own nest egg.

Even beyond tax deductions and credits, offering retirement plans makes financial sense for businesses.

Can small businesses afford to offer 401(k)s?

That same Wakefield Research survey found that 23% of small business owners don’t offer a 401(k) plan because they can’t afford to match contributions, and 29% said they would consider offering one if plan costs fell. Traditionally, offering a 401(k) has been considered expensive for small businesses – but not anymore. It’s no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to implement a 401(k) plan.

Related article:How Much Does a 401(k) Cost Employers?

For example, Human Interest’s retirement plans cost just $120 a month plus $4 per employee per month – less than half the cost of your typical 401(k) provider. Many of our customers pay less than $500 for setup – and eligible companies can get $250 back with the tax credit we mentioned earlier. We aim to make our plans affordable to employees as well, so employees pay just 0.5% of their account balance, compared to a nationwide average of 1.37%.Most small businesses want to do right by their employees, and we want to make it easy and affordable for them to do so.

Both employers and employees receive tax benefits for contributing to a matched 401(k) plan. Employees can build their nest eggs tax-free, while employers enjoy tax credits and write-offs, lower employee turnover, and a more productive workforce. If you’re a small business, a low-fee retirement program can benefit your employees and your bottom line.

If you’re looking for a great 401(k) for your employees, click here to request more information about Human Interest.

Check out our free, online resources to learn more about 401(k)s for you and your company.