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Life-Cycle Saving, Limits on Contributions to DC Pension Plans, and Lifetime Tax Benefits


  • Jagadeesh Gokhale
  • Laurence J. Kotlikoff
  • Mark J. Warshawsky


This paper addresses three questions related to limits on DC contributions. The first is whether statutory limits on tax-deductible contributions to defined contribution (DC) plans are likely to be binding, focusing on households in various economic situations. The second is how large is the tax benefit from participating in defined contribution plans. The third is how does the defined contribution tax benefit depend on the level of lifetime income. We find that the statutory limits bind those older middle-income households who started their pension savings programs late in life, those who plan to retire early, single-earner households, those who are not borrowing constrained, and those with rapid rates of real wage growth. Most households with high levels of earnings, regardless of age or situation, are also constrained by the contribution limits. Lower or middle-income two-eamer households that can look forward to modest real earnings growth are likely to be borrowing constrained for most of their pre-retirement years because of the costs of paying a mortgage and sending children to college. These households are not in a position to save the 25 percent of earnings allowed as a contribution to DC plans. Some of these middle-income households, however, are constrained by the $10,500 limit on elective employee contributions to 401(k) plans if the households have access to only these plans and their employers make no pension contributions for them. The borrowing constraints faced by many lower- and middle-income Americans means that contributions to DC plans must come at the price of lower consumption when young and the benefit of higher consumption when old. Indeed, for a stylized household earning $50,000, consistently contributing 10 percent of salary to a DC plans that earns a 4 percent real return means consuming almost two times more when old than when young. Measured as a share of lifetime consumption, the tax benefit from participating in a DC plan can be significant. Assuming annual contribution rates at the average of the maximum levels allowed by employers in 401 (k) plans and assuming a 4 percent real return on DC and non-DC assets, the benefit is 2 percent for two-earner households earning $25,000 per year, 3.4 percent for those earning $100,000 per year, and 9.8 percent for those earning $300,000 per year...

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  • Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Mark J. Warshawsky, 2001. "Life-Cycle Saving, Limits on Contributions to DC Pension Plans, and Lifetime Tax Benefits," NBER Working Papers 8170, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8170
    Note: AG PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. B. Douglas Bernheim, 2000. "How Much Should Americans Be Saving for Retirement?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(2), pages 288-292, May.
    2. Hubbard, R Glenn & Skinner, Jonathan & Zeldes, Stephen P, 1995. "Precautionary Saving and Social Insurance," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 103(2), pages 360-399, April.
    3. Poterba, James M. & Venti, Steven F. & Wise, David A., 1995. "Do 401(k) contributions crowd out other personal saving?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(1), pages 1-32, September.
    4. Mark J. Warshawsky & John Ameriks, "undated". "How Prepared Are Americans for Retirement?," Pension Research Council Working Papers 98-11, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
    5. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & John Sabelhaus, 1995. "Understanding the postwar decline in United States saving: a cohort analysis," Working Paper 9518, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
    6. Kotlikoff, Laurence J & Summers, Lawrence H, 1981. "The Role of Intergenerational Transfers in Aggregate Capital Accumulation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(4), pages 706-732, August.
    7. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Mark J. Warshawsky, 1999. "Comparing the Economic and Conventional Approaches to Financial Planning," NBER Working Papers 7321, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Christopher D. Carroll & Lawrence H. Summers, 1991. "Consumption Growth Parallels Income Growth: Some New Evidence," NBER Chapters,in: National Saving and Economic Performance, pages 305-348 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. B. Douglas Bernheim & John B. Shoven, 1991. "National Saving and Economic Performance," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bern91-2, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2003. "Who Gets Paid to Save?," NBER Chapters,in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 17, pages 111-140 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Love, David, 2006. "Buffer stock saving in retirement accounts," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(7), pages 1473-1492, October.
    3. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Todd Neumann, 2001. "Does Participating in a 401(k) Raise Your Lifetime Taxes?," NBER Working Papers 8341, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Katherine Grace Carman & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2003. "The Impact on Consumption and Saving of Current and Future Fiscal Policies," NBER Working Papers 10085, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Shinichi Nishiyama, 2009. "The Effect of Tax-Deferred Retirement Saving Accounts: A Dynamic General Equilibrium Analysis," 2009 Meeting Papers 957, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    6. Sanchez-Romero, Miguel, 2005. "“Welfare Gains and Annuities Demand”," Working Papers in Economic Theory 2005/02, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain), Department of Economic Analysis (Economic Theory and Economic History).

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    JEL classification:

    • D9 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics


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