USA Pensions Guide: How Does Retirement Work?

The pensions system in the Land of the Free is complicated to grasp if you’ve never thought about securing a safe retirement and a quality lifestyle in old age.

In the U.S., citizens who opt for a pension plan generally live off the benefits for approximately twenty years. For some, this is a long time. Many will not plan that far in advance. In fact, a 2018 report showed that 25% of adults are not saving for retirement. Of those who are saving, over 50% are using pre-funded plans. With these plans, one may not know where to begin or what they really require. So how does pension work in the USA?

The most common pension plans are the 401(k) as well as the IRA, which you’ve surely heard about. Yet, many Americans and foreign citizens may not be familiar with the technicalities of these plans. Another method is related to some Social Security benefits. However, if you look at automatic state pensions from countries in the EU like the Netherlands, you’ll notice that American pension laws are vastly different. With the wrong retirement plan choice, retirees could find it difficult to support a middle-class lifestyle.

In this USA pensions guide, we’ll cover the basics of pensions and retirement incomes in the USA. 

Retirement Explained

Retirement Explained

In the U.S., pensions can be divided into Social Security benefits as well as pre-funded plans. Those plans can be utilized for the private/public sectors.

There are many pension types that could help individuals achieve financial stability. Overall, it all depends on the individual’s choice, and the citizens are responsible for their own retirement. 

In 2019, some plans are becoming increasingly popular due to tax advantages and other traits. Moreover, to pick a plan, one must consider many factors, including long-term reserves, contribution limits, age, employment time, salaries, etc.

Federal statutes like the ERISA are in charge of governing pension plans. Moreover, like with many U.S. laws, pension laws are dependent on judicial verdicts, state laws, and federal regulations. It’s also worth pointing out that private plans and Social Security options are vastly different in nature. 

Pension Plans

Pension Plans

Essentially, pension plans are private financial arrangements used to provide individuals with income during retirement. 

These plans could be created by employers, the government, various corporations, etc. There are many plans, and some of them include a reasonable tax treatment, as encouraged by Congress. As mentioned, the ERISA law (1974) is key here since it establishes the standards and rules. 

Benefit or Contribution

Employee pension plans are categorized into two main types. That categorization mostly depends on the nature of their pension benefits. The two main types are: 

  • Defined Benefit
  • Contribution Benefit

Regarding these two types, eligibility is mostly means-tested and assessed with income tests, fixed formulas, and other methods. 

Defined Benefit Pension Plans

This plan is determined according to a special FAP formula (final average pay). It takes into consideration service/employment time as well as the total amount of wages gained while employed during that time. If you’ve ever heard of a trust fund, the benefit plan is centered around that. 

Essentially, employers or corporations can set up these funds for the whole group of their workers. This means that the funds are not individual. Moreover, they are usually added by the employers each year. 

The benefits are determined using the previously mentioned FAP formula. What’s more, the courts further separate this broad definition into choices like Cash Balance plans, Hybrid Pension, Equity, etc. Most of these can offer a specified monthly payment, a complete sum, or even a combination of the two. 

Sometimes, one could see the term “corporate pension” used for these plans. Along with this name comes a negative connotation due to some disadvantages that have been overly apparent in recent times. 

Corporate Pension Disadvantages and Decline

For many years, defined benefit plans have been declining steeply in the private sector. They can contain risks for employers and their staff. Thereby, they could be flawed because they rely on an employer’s promise. If this fails, companies can offer lump sums as a buyout on their pension plans in case of a financial crisis. They can also neglect their payouts.

For instance, the corporations with the top 100 benefit plans are actually indebted to their employees by about $1.60 trillion. Moreover, corporate pensions are incredibly expensive for companies to maintain. A company’s financial success is not guaranteed nowadays, which further adds to the list of cons. Hence, plans such as the 401(k) have become the norm.

Contribution Pension Plans

On the other side of the pension coin are contribution plans. Instead of being based on a trust fund per institution, they revolve around individual accounts and are employer-sponsored. That’s how IRS’ Section 414 defines them. Today, contribution arrangements are the dominant form of U.S. retirement. 

Firstly, the participants’ and sometimes the employers’ contributions can determine the benefit amounts. These individual accounts and their contributions can then be placed into investments (e.g., stock market). Then, the benefits are dependant on investment decisions, gains, and also the losses. When the time for retirement comes, the individual’s account will provide them with the benefits. This is often done through annuity purchases. 

In plans like the IRA, the plan participant must select the investment type. Some can be stocks and similar securities, as well as mutual funds. And in most cases, the money contributed can come from salary deferrals and matching contributions by employers. Typically, with these plans, retirement can start at age 59 and a half.

Contribution Types

The retirement plans come in a wide variety, with variables often related to tax treatment and contribution limits. Within them lies a major advantage since some could provide a favorable tax treatment. 

The main defined contribution plans are as follows:

  • Traditional 401(k)
  • Solo and Roth 401(k)
  • 403(b)
  • Traditional IRA

401(k) Plans

Firstly, a majority of well-situated companies will provide a 401(k). This plan is not only useful for retirement savings, but it can also help you with taxes. Some aspects of it are tax-free.

The Traditional plan is based on the pre-tax contributions, which could shave off substantial amounts from your annual taxes. The retirement age here is 59.5, and taxes come into play later in the first year of fund withdrawal. Plus, the funds are tax-deferred. 19$–$25k are the contribution limits, and they will depend on one’s age. When a retiree turns 70 and a half, they’ll need to complete a required annual withdrawal called the RND, which is estimated depending on the life expectancy and the fund balance. It’s possible to use this plan to match your employee salary. 

However, the Roth variant of this plan requires you to fund the contributions with profits calculated post-tax. While the contributions are taxed, the withdrawals during retirement (RMDs included) are not. 

When it comes to the 403(k), it’s a special plan only used by some employees such as medical staff, educators, nonprofit workers, etc. 

Lastly, the Solo variant of this plan is most utilized by self-employed freelancers and such. The max that can be added to the fund is between $56k and $62k depending on the age. 


These plans are the next best choice for those who do not have employee sponsorships or individual accounts. The plans are similar to the Traditional 401(k), but they require much lower contribution limits.

For example, the Traditional IRA is based on pre-tax contributions as well as tax-deferred growth. The age limits are identical, and RMD’s are also compulsory at age 70 and a half. The other difference is that the withdrawals are taxed. Moreover, the contribution limits fall between $6,000 and $7,000. This will depend on the age. Since the IRA is independent of employers, individuals can open retirement accounts for these plans in banks or similar institutions. Variants like Roth, SIMPLE, and SEP will contain different rules.

Social Security

Lastly, another form of pension is founded on Social Security benefits. More than 170 million Americans use the help of this program, with 60 million collecting benefits each month. The program aids retirees and the disabled. Additionally, it can be used to help the families of those persons. 

There’s a fundamental difference in Social Security benefits compared to private pension plans, though. Here, recorded career earnings are the basis of the benefits. The minimum is ten years of employment (40 credits). If they qualify, most retirees will collect their benefits for the program at 62 to 70. According to statistics, the full and optimum age is around 65 to 67. The benefit level depends on your highest salaries over 35 years. 

Moreover, there is no fund. Rather, individuals pay taxes for the program. Depending on the age and the employment records, an average pension is approximately $1,400 to $2,700. That first figure is slightly over the poverty line. Lastly, special minimum benefits cater to those who have had 11-year minimum employment with minimum wages. The pensions here can be around $873. That will also depend on the previously mentioned factors. 


To comfortably retire in the States, most experts estimate that around 80% of previous earnings are needed to cover the costs. Pre-funded plans may be able to cover that percentage while at its highest, Social Security could cover half of that. This means that detailed planning and pension plan decisions can get you closer to a comfortable pension. 

If you wish to assure security in your precious golden years, it’s best to start planning and saving as early as possible!