Defined Benefit (DB) vs. Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

Contributor Image
Written By
Contributor Image
Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

In retirement planning, two primary types of pension plans dominate the landscape:

  • Defined Benefit (DB)
  • Defined Contribution (DC)

Understanding the differences between these two is important for both employers and employees, as it impacts retirement security, investment risks, and financial planning.


Key Takeaways – Defined Benefit (DB) vs. Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

  • DB plans offer stable retirement income, while DC plans provide investment flexibility.
  • Employers bear more financial risk with DB plans, whereas DC plans shift the risk to employees.
  • Switching between DB and DC plans mid-career depends on various factors including employer policies and individual financial implications.


Defined Benefit (DB) Plans

What is a Defined Benefit Plan?

A Defined Benefit (DB) plan promises a specified monthly benefit upon retirement.

The benefit is typically calculated based on factors like salary, age, and years of service.

And like in other investment accounts, this must line up with the contributions made and investment returns made on those contributions for it to be sustainable.

Advantages of DB Plans

  • Provides a guaranteed income in retirement.
  • Investment risk is borne by the employer.
  • Employees can predict their retirement income with more certainty.

Disadvantages of DB Plans

  • Can be costly for employers due to funding obligations.
  • Less flexibility for employees in terms of investment choices.
  • Potential for underfunding, which can jeopardize future payouts.


Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

What is a Defined Contribution Plan?

A Defined Contribution (DC) plan allows employees and employers to contribute to individual accounts.

The final benefit depends on:

  • a) the contributions made and
  • b) the investment returns on those contributions

Advantages of DC Plans

  • Offers more flexibility in investment choices for employees.
  • Reduces financial risk for employers.
  • Allows for potential higher returns based on individual investment decisions.

Disadvantages of DC Plans

  • Investment risk is shifted to the employee.
  • Retirement income is not guaranteed and can vary based on market performance.
  • Requires more active management and financial literacy on the part of the employee.


Key Differences in DB and DC Plans

Here are some key differences:

Risk Allocation

In DB plans, the employer bears the investment risk, while in DC plans, the risk is shouldered by the employee.

Predictability of Retirement Income

DB plans offer a more predictable retirement income, whereas DC plans are subject to market fluctuations.


DC plans generally offer more flexibility in terms of investment choices, while DB plans have predetermined formulas.


Can I Switch Plans Mid-Career?

Switching plans mid-career depends on several factors:

Employer Policies

If your employer offers both DB and DC plans, they may have policies in place that allow for switching between plans.

However, not all employers offer this flexibility.


If you’re vested in your current DB plan, you’ve earned the right to a future benefit.

This is true even if you switch to a DC plan.

However, if you’re not fully vested, you might lose some or all of the employer-provided benefits from the DB plan if you switch.

New Employment

If you change employers, you might move from a job with a DB plan to one with a DC plan, or vice versa.

In such cases, you can typically:

  • a) leave your accumulated benefits in the old plan or
  • b) roll over DC plan funds to a new plan or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Plan Conversion

Some employers have converted their DB plans to DC plans.

In these cases, employees might automatically be switched from one plan type to another.

Personal Choice

If you have the option to switch and are considering it, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons.

A DB plan offers guaranteed benefits, while a DC plan offers investment choice and flexibility.

Consider your retirement goals, risk tolerance, and the benefits you’ve already accrued.

Financial Implications

Switching plans can have financial implications, including potential tax consequences.

It’s important to consult with a financial advisor or retirement specialist before making a decision.

So while it’s possible to switch plans mid-career in some situations, the feasibility and advisability of doing so depend on individual circumstances and employer policies.


Understanding Retirement Plans: Defined Benefit (DB) and Defined Contribution (DC) Plans Explained


FAQs – Defined Benefit (DB) vs. Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

What are Defined Benefit (DB) and Defined Contribution (DC) Plans?

Defined Benefit (DB) and Defined Contribution (DC) plans are two primary types of retirement plans.

A DB plan promises a specified monthly benefit at retirement, which is predetermined by a formula based on the employee’s earnings history, tenure of service, and age.

In contrast, a DC plan allows employees to invest pre-tax dollars from their paycheck into an investment account.

The retirement benefits from a DC plan are based on the contributions made and the performance of the investments.

How do the contribution methods differ between DB and DC plans?

In a DB plan, the employer primarily makes contributions and bears the investment risk.

The amount of retirement benefit is guaranteed, regardless of the investment’s performance.

In a DC plan, the employee, and sometimes the employer, make contributions.

The final retirement benefit depends on the total contributions and the investment’s performance, meaning the employee bears the investment risk.

Which plan offers more predictable retirement benefits?

DB plans offer more predictable retirement benefits because they promise a specific amount based on a predetermined formula.

DC plans, on the other hand, are subject to the volatility of the investment market, making the final retirement benefit less predictable.

Can employees choose their investments in both plans?

No, only in DC plans can employees typically choose their investments from a range of options provided by the plan.

In DB plans, the employer or plan manager makes the investment decisions.

What happens if an employee leaves the company before retirement?

In a DB plan, an employee may receive a reduced benefit or none at all if they leave before meeting the plan’s vesting requirements.

In a DC plan, employees can typically take their contributions and vested employer contributions with them when they leave, either by rolling them into another retirement account or taking a distribution.

Are there any risks associated with DB plans for employers?

Yes, employers bear the investment and funding risk in DB plans.

If the plan’s investments underperform or if there’s a shortfall, the employer is responsible for making up the difference to ensure promised benefits are paid out.

How are the benefits calculated in a DB plan?

Benefits in a DB plan are calculated based on a formula that considers factors like the employee’s final salary, years of service, and a predetermined percentage.

For example, an employee might receive a benefit equal to 1.5% of their final salary for each year of service.

Can employers contribute to DC plans?

Yes, many employers offer matching contributions to DC plans.

For instance, an employer might match 50% of an employee’s contributions up to a certain percentage of their salary.

Which plan is more common today and why?

DC plans, especially 401(k) plans, have become more common in recent years.

This shift is due to the reduced financial risk for employers, as they are not responsible for guaranteeing a specific retirement benefit in DC plans.

Can an employer offer both DB and DC plans to employees?

Yes, some employers offer both types of plans, allowing employees to benefit from the guaranteed payout of a DB plan and the investment choices and potential growth of a DC plan.



Choosing between a Defined Benefit and a Defined Contribution plan is a significant decision that affects retirement outcomes.

Both plans have their merits and drawbacks.

It’s essential for employers to understand their financial obligations and for employees to be aware of their retirement goals and risk tolerance.

Overall, the right choice will depend on individual circumstances and preferences.

Related Content