457 contribution limits for 2021
The maximum amount you can contribute to a 457 retirement plan in 2021 is $19,500, including any employer contributions. For example, if your employer contributes $5,000, you're allowed to contribute $14,500 to meet the annual limit. (Most plans, however, don't match worker contributions.)
If you're 50 or older, your plan may allow you to contribute an additional $6,500 as a "catch-up" contribution, bringing your contribution total to $26,000. (The limits for 2021 are the same for 2020.)
There's also a separate catch-up contribution that benefits soon-to-be retirees, if permitted by the 457 plan. If you're within three years of the plan's "normal retirement age," you can save double the annual limit for three years as long as you haven't maxed out your contributions in the past. If you're eligible, that brings your maximum contribution level to $39,000 for 2021—or up to $117,000 over three years.
However, if you are eligible for both types of catch-up contributions, the IRS will only allow you to take advantage of the one that adds the most to your retirement account.
Benefits of a 457 Retirement Plan
As with contributions to a traditional 401(k) or contributions to a 403(b), money goes into a 457 before you pay income taxes on it. The pretax contributions lower your current taxable income. Meanwhile, your contributions and earnings grow tax-sheltered until you withdraw them. Unlike with the other retirement accounts, the IRS doesn't penalize you for taking early withdrawals from a 457 account before age 59 1/2. But you will pay regular income tax on all withdrawals.
Many 401(k) plans in the private sector automatically enroll workers. But 457 plans generally do not permit auto-enrollment because of state or local laws. So, the first step in benefiting from this retirement vehicle is to sign up.
Best Investments for a 457 Plan
Then, do your due diligence on your investment options. Fees and other costs are always important when evaluating investments.
More 457 plans are adding target-date mutual funds that take a lot of the investment decision-making out of workers' hands. With target-date funds, a worker chooses the fund whose name includes the year closest to his or her expected retirement date. So in 2021, a worker planning to retire in about 20 years would select a target-date fund with a year close to 2041 in its name. (Target-date funds typically are named in five-year increments: 2030, 2035, 2040 and so on.) These funds invest aggressively when workers are young and gradually become more conservative as retirement approaches.
For example, a target-date fund meant for workers in their twenties holds mostly stocks. But investments in a target-date fund for someone nearing retirement age may be split evenly between stocks and bonds.
Besides target-date funds, 457 plans generally offer a lineup of index funds, actively managed stock mutual funds and fixed-income funds. They also offer managed accounts, which are professionally managed to match your financial goals and risk tolerance.
If you're happy with your investment choices, the next step to boost your retirement savings is to increase your contributions as your salary increases. Unlike 401(k) plans with auto-escalation, it's not an automatic feature with 457 plans. Therefore, it's up to you to beef up your contributions when you get a pay raise or can afford to contribute more.
Remember, this is a supplemental plan to your traditional pension, and even though you may not get a match, your employer has already put aside a large sum of money on your behalf.
An investment in the Target Date fund is not guaranteed at any time, including on or after the target date.