Safe Harbor vs. Traditional 401(k) Plan: Which Is Right for You and Your Employees?

Weigh the pros and cons of each carefully before making a decision for your company.

illustration of seaside lighthouse

401(k) lingo can sound like a foreign language. There's "MEPs" and "PEPs," “QDIAs” and “QACAs.” But for now, let's focus on Safe Harbor 401(k) plans. If you’ve concluded that a 401(k) is right for your company, the next decision you face is what kind of 401(k) plan. They come in two primary flavors, with the Safe Harbor variety providing an alternative to the Traditional 401(k) plan.

Does the “Safe Harbor” name mean the traditional route is riskier? Not necessarily. There's a host of pros and cons to each plan type. The best fit for your company depends ultimately on your unique situation. Keep reading to try on a Safe Harbor for size.

Editor’s note: If you’re reading this during the first half of the year, with eyes on possibly implementing a Safe Harbor plan the following year, time is of the essence! Learn more about Safe Harbor setup deadlines below.

Table of contents

  1. Safe Harbor 401(k) plans in a nutshell
  2. How nondiscrimination testing can trip up small businesses
  3. Safe Harbor may make sense for you if …
  4. Safe Harbor setup deadlines
  5. What Betterment at Work brings to your Safe Harbor 401(k) setup

Safe Harbor 401(k) plans in a nutshell

Safe Harbor plans offer companies an enticing deal. Contribute to your employees’ 401(k)s, the federal government says, and we’ll give you a free pass on most compliance testing. There's plenty more nuance to them of course (keep reading for that), but this is the key distinction. In Traditional 401(k) plans, employer contributions are allowed but not requiredand you face the added burden of annual testing. 

As with all things in life, Safe Harbor plans come with tradeoffs. Matching your employees’ contributionsor contributing regardless of whether they do through what’s called a nonelective contributionis great for your employees' financial wellbeing, but it could also increase your overall employee budget by 3% or more depending on the size of your contribution.

How nondiscrimination testing can trip up small businesses

Federal law requires annual nondiscrimination tests, which help ensure 401(k) plans benefit all employees—not just business owners or highly compensated employees (HCEs). Because the federal government provides significant tax perks through 401(k) plans, it wants to make sure these benefits don’t more heavily favor high earners.

The three main nondiscrimination tests are:

  • Actual deferral percentage (ADP) test—Compares the average salary deferrals of HCEs to those of non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs).
  • Actual contribution percentage (ACP) test—Compares the average employer matching contributions received by HCEs and NHCEs.
  • Top-heavy test—Evaluates whether a plan is top-heavy, that is, if the total value of the plan accounts of “key employees” is more than 60% of the value of all plan assets. The IRS defines a key employee as an officer making more than $200,000 in 2022 (indexed), an owner of more than 5% of the business, or an owner of more than 1% of the business who made more than $150,000 during the plan year.

In practice, it’s easier for large companies to pass the tests because they have a lot of employees at many different income levels contributing to the plan. If, on the other hand, even just a few HCEs at a small-to-midsize business contribute a lot to the plan, but the lower earners don’t, there’s a chance the 401(k) plan will not pass nondiscrimination testing.

You may be wondering: “What happens if my plan fails?” Well, you’ll need to fix the imbalance by either returning a portion of the contributions made by your highly compensated employees or by increasing the contributions of your non-highly compensated employees. If you have to refund contributions, affected employees may fall behind on their retirement savings—and that money may be subject to state and federal taxes! If you don’t correct the issue in a timely manner, there could also be a 10% penalty fee and other serious consequences.

Failing these tests, in other words, can be a real pain in the pocketbook.

Safe Harbor may make sense for you if …

Every company is different, but here’s a list of employer characteristics that tend to align best with the plan type.

Your staff count is in the dozens, not hundreds.

Not all small businesses are created equal. In general, however, the smaller your staff count, the more likely it is that the 401(k) contributions of high earners could outweigh those of their lower-compensated peers. If that happens under a Traditional 401(k) plan, you’re at a higher risk of failing nondiscrimination testing.

Your staff includes a high percentage of part-time and/or seasonal employees.

For companies with more fluid staff makeups, the same elevated risk of failing nondiscrimination testing applies. These types of workers are typically allowed to participate in plans yet often don’t contribute, thus negatively impacting testing.

Your company has previously failed ADP or ACP compliance tests.

This one’s a no-brainer. If Traditional 401(k) plans have given you testing fits in recent years, switching to a Safe Harbor plan could help avoid these costly tripups.

Your company’s previous plans have been deemed “top-heavy.”

Similar to the above, if you haven’t recently failed an ADP or ACP test as part of a Traditional 401(k) plan, but your plan was deemed “top-heavy,” you may have a higher risk of failing in the future.

Your company has consistent and adequate cash flow.

Safe Harbor 401(k) plans offer employees a pretty sweet deal. The company kicks in a minimum of 3-4% of their salaries, either contingent on a matching contribution or not (see: nonelective). That money vests immediately, too, which means employees can quit tomorrow and keep it. This commitment to your workforce’s retirement savings is the key cost consideration of Safe Harbor plans. It’s why we typically don’t recommend them for companies with less predictable cash flow year-over-year. 

You’d rather avoid administrative burdens.

Take it from us: even successful compliance testing can be a hassle. And failures? They can lead not only to the aforementioned penalties but to uncomfortable conversations with impacted employees. They’ll need explanations for why their contributions are being returned, and they ultimately may not be able to maximize their 401(k). If you prefer peace-of-mind over these compliance worries, consider the Safe Harbor option.

Safe Harbor setup deadlines

If you’re strongly considering setting up a Safe Harbor plan or adding a Safe Harbor contribution to your existing plan, here are a few key deadlines you need to know:

Starting a new plan

For calendar year plans, October 1 is the final deadline for starting a new Safe Harbor 401(k) plan. But don’t cut it too close—you’re required to notify your employees 30 days before the plan startsand you’ll likely need to talk to your plan provider before that. If we’re fortunate enough to serve in that role for you, that means we’ll need to sign a service agreement by August 1.

Adding Safe Harbor to an existing plan

If you want to add a Safe Harbor match provision to your current plan, you can include a plan amendment that goes into effect January 1 so long as employees receive notice at least 30 days prior. At Betterment, the deadline for you to request this amendment is October 31

Thanks to the SECURE Act, plans that want to become a nonelective Safe Harbor planmeaning the employer contributes regardless of whether the employee doeshave newfound flexibility. An existing plan can implement a 3% nonelective Safe Harbor provision for the current plan year if amended 30 days before the close of the plan year. Plans that decide to implement a nonelective Safe Harbor contribution of 4% or more have until the end of the following year in which the plan will become a Safe Harbor.

Communicating with employees

Every year, eligible employees need to be notified about their rights and obligations under your Safe Harbor plan (except for those with nonelective contributions, as noted above). The IRS requires notice be given between 30-90 days before the beginning of the plan year.

What Betterment at Work brings to your Safe Harbor 401(k) setup

An experienced plan provider like Betterment at Work can bring a lot to the table:

  • Smooth onboarding | We guide you through each step of the onboarding process so you can start your plan quickly and easily.
  • Simple administration | Our intuitive tech and helpful team keep you informed of what you need to do, when you need to do it.
  • Affordability | We’re fully transparent about our pricing so no surprises await you or your employees.
  • Investing choice | Give your employees access to a variety of low-cost, expert-built portfolios.

Ready to get started – or simply get more of your questions answered? Reach out today.

Get started

Or keep reading to learn more about whether the other big consideration for your 401(k) plan—auto-enrollment—is right for your situation.