Back to blog

401(k) Profit Sharing Plans: Everything You Need To Know

Ryan Shank

401(k) profit sharing plans are a dynamic approach to employee benefits and retirement plans, combining retirement savings with a more collaborative company ethos.

These plans usually go beyond traditional profit sharing systems, allowing you to share your profits directly with your employees for the benefit of their retirement plans. This helps to foster a sense of ownership and aligns employee goals with the objectives of your business.

In this guide, we are going to help you understand all of the essentials that make up these plans and what they are at their core. You'll learn more about the financial benefits of 401(k) for your business and how they add to a more engaged workforce.

What Is a Profit Sharing 401K Plan?

A 401(k) profit sharing plan is a retirement savings plan that combines standard profit sharing contributions (based on company profits) with a 401(k) retirement plan.

Unlike regular 401(k) plans, these contributions are flexible and don't depend on what employees contribute. Employers can also use a different allocation formula to decide who gets what.

Typically, these plans have two types:

  • Stand alone: Only the employer contributes
  • Combined: A profit sharing plan is integrated with a 401(k) plan

Any company of any size can use a 401(k) profit sharing plan, and it doesn't depend on the profitability status of the business.

Additionally, employers can enjoy a tax break for contributing to their employees' retirement plans and can decide on how much to contribute after the year ends, providing a sense of flexibility.

Profit sharing plans also offer different ways to divvy up these contributions, like the flat dollar, pro-rata, or new comparability methods. The latter is extremely handy for businesses with a diverse age group of employees.

But what specific benefits do employers get out of using these plans? And why would an employee care about this type of profit sharing plan? Let's delve a little deeper into the nitty-gritty...

Benefits of Profit Sharing 401K Plans for Employers

How can your business benefit from a 401(k) profit sharing plan? The advantages here are incredible and depend on the business, but the most common benefits include:

  • Employee attraction and retention: Offering this type of profit sharing plan can help to attract talented employees and keep the top performers that you've already hired.
  • Tax benefits: Business owners can receive tax deductions for any employer contributions made to the profit sharing plan. Employer contributions are tax-deductible for the company as well, which means less taxable income.
  • Flexible employer contributions: With 401(k) profit sharing plans, you have the ability to determine the amount and frequency of any contributions you make. This allows you to adjust them based on business performance.
  • Employee performance: When your employees have a stake in how well the business is doing, it can help to motivate them and boost their performance.
  • Vesting schedules: With this profit sharing plan, you can implement a vesting schedule. This can help determine when employees become entitled to any employer contributions, which incentivizes long-term commitment to the company.
  • Reduced turnover and turnover costs: By offering attractive benefits like a 401(k) profit sharing plan, you can help to reduce your turnover rates. This helps to save on the costs of hiring and training new employees.

Advantages for Employees

Not only does an employer benefit from a 401(k) profit sharing plan, but so do employees. Some of the most important advantages for your workforce include:

  • Bigger savings: When you allow for pre-tax contributions from your employees, they can steadily grow their retirement savings over time.
  • Financial security: The tax advantages of a 401(k) profit sharing plan mean that employees have a safety net against immediate tax burdens. This helps ensure that employees have more financial security during their retirement.
  • Employee support: Employer contributions go beyond just finances. In fact, it shows a company's investment in its employee's futures and promotes a sense of stability.
  • Motivation and loyalty: A company's dedication to its employees also helps to motivate employees, since they have a vested interest in the company doing well. Since they're getting something out of it, employees are going to be more loyal and have a positive attitude toward their work.
  • Customized strategies: Since employees can choose from a range of investment options, they can tailor their portfolios to match their financial goals. Similarly, they can tweak their risk tolerance for optimized savings.
  • Wealth multiplication: Compounding returns mean an exponential increase of money put aside in retirement accounts in the long run. This leads to significant growth in your employee's wealth and, ultimately, a more comfortable retirement.
  • Commitment: When your employees feel like stakeholders in the company, they're going to be more invested in the company's profits and overall success. Your employees will want a 'piece of the action', so to speak, so they're willing to work harder. When your workforce all feels the same way, it boosts morale and makes the work culture a more positive experience.
  • Financial health: When retirement planning is part of an employee's overall financial strategy, it means they're actively involved in their future. This helps employees boost their financial well-being - all with the help of your company.

Eligibility and Contribution Limits

A 401(k) profit sharing plan has specific criteria for employee participation. Generally, eligibility is based on completing a specific number of work hours or a minimum service period at the company.

As an employer, you can decide to exclude certain groups like union employees and anyone under 21 years old, which allows for more flexibility to tailor your criteria for fairness.

Although some plans include employee contributions, employers are the key contributors to this specific profit sharing plan. In turn, employers decide how much and when to make the contributions.

It's important to remember that the IRS sets annual contribution limits that ensure employer deductions stay within a certain percentage of the eligible employee's compensation.

Following these IRS guidelines ensures responsible financial management and aligns contributors (employers) with their financial capabilities, resulting in the best outcome for everyone.

Understanding these guidelines and criteria is essential for any company that's looking to set up a profit sharing plan that is both effective and compliant with the relevant regulations.

Setting up a Profit Sharing 401K Plan

Choosing a plan administrator

The first step in creating a 401(k) profit sharing plan is to pick an administrator. Ideally, you want to find an experienced legal or financial advisor who understands the parameters of these types of plans.

A professional can help you create a detailed plan document, which should outline your profit sharing contribution formula, employee eligibility criteria, and other important factors.

Contribution formulas

When you're creating a 401(k) profit sharing plan, one of the most important things to consider is the formula used to calculate the contributions. This formula should align with your business's goals and your overall employee structure. The most common profit sharing allocation formulas include:

Flat dollar or same dollar amount method

The flat dollar method is an incredibly straightforward approach where the employer contributes a fixed or set amount to the eligible employees' retirement funds. The amount is calculated by dividing the profit pool equally among all of the employees who are on the 401(k) plan.

By doing this, you can ensure that all of your employees receive the same dollar amount in discretionary employer contributions. This is regardless of the employee's compensation or contribution level.

Pro-rata or comp-to-comp method

The pro-rate or comp-to-comp method calculates each employee's slice of the pie based on their percentage of the total eligible compensation. In simple terms, it ensures that your employees receive a share of the total compensation based on their salary compared to what everyone else at the company makes.

New Comparability method

One of the most flexible methods is the New Comparability system, which allows you to allocate different profit sharing contribution levels between different employee groups.

This could involve grouping your employees based on factors like their salary (for example, splitting highly compensated employees with those who have lower salaries) or how long they've been working at your company.

This means that each employee tier will get different profit sharing contributions to their retirement plans.


An age-weighted profit-sharing plan allows employers to allocate a greater percentage of profit-sharing contributions to older employees as they are closer to retirement than other, younger plan participants.

Legal considerations

Of course, no 401(k) profit sharing plan is above the law. So, you'll need to set up a trust to protect the plan assets. This makes choosing the right trustee essential for ensuring the financial security of your profit sharing plan.

Additionally, you'll need a Third-Party Administrator to track any employer contributions, earnings, expenses, and how the benefits of these retirement plans are distributed.

Communication and employee engagement

Talking to your employees about your plan is an essential step to keep them happy, which includes describing the ins and outs of the retirement plan you choose. You can help them understand how the profits are shared by using simple language in a Summary Plan Description.

Additionally, if there are any changes, you'll need to send out a Summary of Material Modifications to keep everyone in the loop.

Continuous compliance monitoring

Continuous compliance monitoring is crucial for the long-term success of your 401(k) profit sharing plan. Your plan will need to pass non-discrimination tests, comparing the participation and profit sharing contributions of highly compensated employees with non-highly compensated employees.

Profitability assessment and sustainability

To start the process of implementing a 401(k) profit sharing plan, it's important to determine whether your business is making enough profit through a profitability assessment.

Although you don't have to make discretionary employer contributions annually, it's necessary to regularly contribute a good amount to keep your profit sharing plan healthy.

It's also important to note that if you stop making substantial profit sharing contributions for at least three years in a five-year span, the IRS will assume that you've ceased the plan. This means that it's crucial to maintain contributions so that things run smoothly.

Common Misconceptions and Challenges

There are plenty of companies that shy away from using 401(k) profit sharing plans because of their misconceptions about the cost and complexity of using them.

One of these misconceptions is that administering a profit sharing plan is challenging and there are too many proverbial holes to jump through. But ShareWillow can help to simplify this process by providing you with user-friendly tools, including a comprehensive dashboard to manage your profit sharing plan.

The dashboard allows for easy access for anyone to view the plan and understand how individual shares are calculated. The integrated reports also give everyone a transparent view of historical distributions, which can help to foster trust and understanding.

Similarly, concerns about high administration costs are unfounded when you're using ShareWillow. The platform is cost-effective, making profit sharing accessible for businesses of all sizes. The customizable template also offers a ton of flexibility, allowing room for adjustments when profits fluctuate.

With ShareWillow, you can leave all of your worries and concerns at the door. The easy-to-use platform and customization make creating a solid profit sharing plan a breeze. So, are you ready to keep your employees happy and boost your profits? Then be sure to get started with ShareWillow today to manage your profit sharing distributions.

Profit Sharing 401(k)'s: The Bottom Line

401(k) profit sharing plans are really powerful systems for mutual wealth and profitability. Besides the financial advantages, these plans help to create a shared commitment to success within your business. In turn, it establishes a collaborative environment where your employees can thrive.

Remember that in a symbiotic relationship like this, both employers and employees reap the rewards, which guarantees a wealthy and successful future for all stakeholders.


Ryan is the founder of ShareWillow. He's passionate about helping businesses create incentive plans that motivate and reward employees. He previously built and sold PhoneWagon.

Profit Sharing Case Study

Profit Sharing Case Study

How a business owner can reduce her 401(k) profit sharing costs by $51,000

Download for free
Performance Pay Case Study

Performance Pay Case Study

This case study by Edward Lazear is all about performance pay and productivity.

Download for free

How to Create a Unique 401k Plan for Your Business

Learn how to create a customized 401k plan for your business that sets you apart from the competition.

Continue reading

Unlocking the Benefits of 5% Annual Revenue Sharing

Discover how implementing a 5% annual revenue sharing model can unlock a multitude of benefits for businesses.

Continue reading

American Airlines Profit Sharing: How It Works

Join us as we navigate American Airlines' profit sharing strategy, including its benefits, eligibility rules, and more.

Continue reading

Follow our journey as we build the best call tracking software

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.