Cash balance plans – you’ve probably heard the term, but what exactly are they and how do they work? As someone who’s passionate about exploring various financial strategies, I’m here to help you unravel the mystery surrounding this lesser-known retirement option. In today’s post, we’ll dive deep into the world of cash balance pension plans. If you’ve ever wondered what these plans are or how they work, you’re in the right place. So, sit back, grab your favorite beverage, and let’s unravel the mystery of cash balance pension plans together.

Cash Balance Pension Plans -

What Is a Cash Balance Pension Plan?

In the world of retirement planning, such pension plans are the less popular, lesser-known cousins of the widely recognized 401(k)s and IRAs. But what exactly are they?

A cash balance pension plan is a type of defined benefit plan, which means that it guarantees a specific benefit to employees upon retirement. In contrast, defined contribution plans like 401(k)s and IRAs depend on the performance of your investments and contributions.

Cash balance pension plans have individual accounts for each employee, and the account balance consists of two components:

  1. Pay credits: A percentage of the employee’s salary, contributed by the employer
  2. Interest credits: A guaranteed interest rate applied to the account balance

The best way to understand a cash balance pension plan is to think of it as a hybrid between a traditional pension plan and a 401(k). It offers the guaranteed benefits of a pension plan with the portability of a 401(k).

How Does a Cash Balance Pension Plan Work?

The cash balance pension plan is unique in its workings. Let’s break down the different aspects of the plan to better understand how it operates:

Pay Credits

Employers make contributions to each employee’s account in the form of pay credits. These credits are usually expressed as a percentage of the employee’s salary, for example, 5% of annual salary. The percentage may increase as the employee’s years of service with the company grow.

Interest Credits

Interest credits are the second component of a cash balance pension plan. These are typically based on a pre-determined fixed interest rate or an index, such as the 30-year Treasury bond rate. This guarantees a minimum return on your account balance, regardless of market fluctuations.


Vesting refers to the portion of your account balance that you are entitled to take with you if you leave the company. In most cash balance pension plans, employees become 100% vested after a specific number of years of service, typically 3 to 5 years. This means that if you leave the company after that period, you can take your entire account balance with you.


One of the most attractive features of cash balance pension plans is their portability. If you change jobs, you can either leave your account balance in the plan, roll it over to an IRA or another qualified retirement plan, or take a lump sum payout. This flexibility is similar to what you’d find with a 401(k).

Cash Balance Pension Plan vs. Traditional Pension Plan

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The table above highlights the key differences between cash balance pension plans and traditional pension plans. Cash balance pension plans offer a more transparent and portable option, which may be more suitable for the modern workforce.

Cash Balance Pension Plan vs. 401k

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As you can see from the table above, cash balance pension plans and 401(k)s share some similarities, like individual accounts and portability. However, cash balance pension plans offer guaranteed returns, while 401(k)s depend on investment performance.

Rules and Requirements for Cash Balance Plans

Operating a Cash Balance Plan involves adhering to specific rules and requirements, largely regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS):

1. Non-Discrimination: Cash Balance Plans must meet non-discrimination requirements to ensure that benefits provided under the plan do not disproportionately favor highly compensated employees.

2. Funding Requirement: The employer is responsible for adequately funding the plan. The required annual contributions are determined by an actuary and must be deposited to the plan trust by a specified deadline.

3. Reporting and Disclosure: Employers must provide plan participants with a comprehensive plan document, summary plan descriptions, and annual statements. They also need to file an annual report (Form 5500) with the IRS.

4. Plan Amendments: If the employer decides to amend the plan, participants must be notified, and the amendments must comply with legal requirements.

Contribution Limits in Cash Balance Plans

In Cash Balance Plans, there are two main types of contributions that we need to discuss: the “pay credit” (or employer contribution), and the “interest credit.”

  • Pay Credit is a percentage of an employee’s salary or a fixed amount that is credited to the participant’s account each year by the employer. The pay credit is generally a flat percentage of compensation or a graded percentage that increases with age, years of service, or both.
  • Interest credit is a guaranteed rate of return applied to the account balance at the end of each year. This rate can be a fixed or variable rate tied to an index, such as the 30-year Treasury rate.

As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2023, the maximum annual benefit payable from a Cash Balance Plan (at retirement age) is $265,000. This amount translates back into a maximum contribution that varies based on the age of the participant. The older the participant, the higher the contribution can be because there is less time for the interest credit to accumulate before retirement.

For instance, a participant in their 20s might have an annual contribution limit of around $50,000, while someone in their 60s might be able to contribute over $200,000 annually.

Age Approximate Maximum Annual Contribution

Please note that these are approximate amounts and they can vary based on factors such as the interest crediting rate and the specific design of the Cash Balance Plan.

Pros and Cons


  1. Guaranteed benefits: The interest credits provide a guaranteed minimum return, which may be attractive for conservative investors.
  2. Portability: Cash balance pension plans are more portable than traditional pension plans, allowing you to take your account balance with you when changing jobs.
  3. Employer contributions: Your employer contributes to your account based on a percentage of your salary.


  1. Limited investment options: Unlike investments in 401(k)s, you don’t have the ability to choose your investments.
  2. Complexity: Cash balance pension plans can be more complicated to understand than 401(k)s or IRAs.

Who Can Benefit from such a Pension Plan?

This plans may be well-suited for the following groups of people:

  1. Employees who value guaranteed benefits: Those who prefer the certainty of a guaranteed return on their retirement savings may find cash balance pension plans more attractive than 401(k)s or IRAs.
  2. Highly compensated professionals: Cash balance pension plans may be a good fit for professionals like doctors, lawyers, and business owners who have the ability to contribute significantly to their retirement savings.
  3. Employers looking to offer competitive benefits: Offering a cash balance pension plan can help employers attract and retain top talent in a competitive job market.

Example of a Cash Balance Pension Plan

To illustrate how a cash balance pension plan works, let’s take a look at a hypothetical scenario:

  • Alice is a 45-year-old employee earning $100,000 annually.
  • Her employer contributes 5% of her salary as pay credits ($5,000).
  • The interest credit rate for the plan is 4%.

After one year, Alice’s account balance would be $5,200 ($5,000 + 4% interest). Over time, as her salary increases and more pay and interest credits accrue, her account balance will continue to grow, providing her with a sizeable nest egg for retirement.

Tax Implications and Benefits of Cash Balance Plans

Cash Balance Plans can offer significant tax advantages for both employers and employees, making them a powerful tool in retirement planning:

1. Tax-Deductible Contributions: Employer contributions to Cash Balance Plans are tax-deductible, providing substantial tax savings, especially for businesses with high-income owners or partners looking to contribute significantly more than the 401(k) limits.

2. Tax-Deferred Growth: The investment earnings in the plan grow tax-free. This allows the account balance to compound over time without being reduced by taxes, leading to potentially much larger account balances at retirement.

3. Tax-Free Rollovers: When employees leave the company, they can roll over their vested plan benefits directly into an IRA or another employer’s retirement plan. This rollover is tax-free, enabling continued tax-deferred growth.

4. Taxable Distributions: Distributions from the plan are subject to income tax. However, this is typically less of a concern for retirees as they often find themselves in a lower tax bracket compared to their working years.

In addition to these tax implications, Cash Balance Plans provide predictable benefits, reduce investment risk for employees, and can aid in employee retention and recruitment.

Withdrawals and Distributions from Cash Balance Plans

The specifics of when and how you can withdraw money from a Cash Balance Plan are governed by the terms of the plan itself, as well as federal law. Here are some key points:

1. Retirement Age: Once you reach the retirement age defined by the plan (generally between ages 62 to 67), you can begin to receive distributions from the plan.

2. Forms of Distribution: You can choose to receive your Cash Balance Plan benefits as a lump-sum payment or as annuity payments. Lump-sum distributions can be rolled over into an IRA or another employer’s plan, allowing for continued tax-deferred growth.

3. Early Withdrawals: If you withdraw money before reaching the age of 59 ½, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to ordinary income tax, unless you meet specific exceptions defined by the IRS.

4. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs): Like other qualified retirement plans, Cash Balance Plans are subject to RMD rules. This means that once you reach age 72 (as of my last update in September 2021), you must start taking minimum distributions from the plan each year, regardless of whether you’ve retired.

6. Termination of Employment: If you leave your job or are terminated, you can receive your vested plan balance. The options available will depend on the plan terms and could include leaving the money in the plan, receiving a lump-sum payment, or transferring the money to an IRA or another employer’s plan.

Vesting Period in Cash Balance Plans

The vesting period refers to the amount of time an employee must work for their employer before they earn the right to the employer’s contributions to their plan account.

For Cash Balance Plans, the law requires that all participants be 100% vested after completing three years of service. This means that after three years, the employee has a nonforfeitable right to all of the benefits in their hypothetical account, including employer-contributed credits, regardless of whether they continue to work for the employer.


Cash balance pension plans are an intriguing retirement savings option that combines features of both traditional pension plans and 401(k)s. They offer guaranteed benefits and portability, making them an attractive choice for some employees and employers. However, their complexity and limited investment options may make them less suitable for others.

Before deciding if a cash balance pension plan is right for you, take the time to understand how they work, weigh their pros and cons, and consult with a financial professional to ensure that you’re making the best decision for your unique financial situation and retirement goals.

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