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What are the Differences Between a 401k and a 501c3?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2018
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There are many differences between a 401k and a 501c3, though it is easy to mix up the names since the numbers and letters are similar. One of the main differences is that a 401k gives a temporary tax shelter to an employee, while the 501c3 offers tax benefits for a company. Most non-profit companies depend upon their 501c3 classification, which allows them to offer tax benefits to their donors and requires the organizations to pay little to no taxes on the money they earn.

Both 401ks and 501c3s offer tax benefits to contributors. One of the important differences between the two is that contributions to a 401k remain in the possession of the contributors. Contributions to a 501c3 become the property of the non-profit organization to which one is contributing. Money given to a 401k is not taxed when withdrawn from a person’s salary, but if a person wants that money before retirement age, it will then be taxed as regular income.

Offering donations to a 501c3 can reduce the amount of taxes a person pays, and is not restricted to income. Many 501c3s offer tax benefits for donations of items like furniture, office supplies, cars or clothes, which can then be deducted from a person’s total income when filing taxes. Such deductions are usually only taken when they are large, and when a person itemizes his or her taxes.

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In most cases, 401ks are established by an employer so employees can save money for retirement. A nonprofit group, on the other hand, applies for the 501c3 as a tax status. To make things a little confusing, large 501c3s may establish 401ks for their employees. So for example, a school district might have a 401k plan to which employees may contribute to enhance their retirement years.

Once the differences between a 401k and a 501c3 are understood, it becomes more difficult to confuse them. As a rule of thumb, a 401k only concerns an employee and his or her retirement earnings. On the other hand, a non-profit group would almost always be referring to its non-profit status, the essence of 501c3 classification. Understanding these distinctions can help both employees and employers apply their income to the correct source.

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anon148
Post 1

Article assumes that I know what a "401k" is, which is what I wanted to know.

Moderator's reply: Please visit the wiseGEEK article What is a Solo 401k? for more information about 401ks specifically. Thanks!

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