Defined Benefit Pension Plan Vs. Defined Contribution Plan

Defined Benefit Pension Plan Vs. Defined Contribution Plan

A company pension plan can be a valuable source of retirement income. There are two types: defined benefit and defined contribution. Both provide income after retirement, but they are different in how they work. In this article, I’ll compare the two and let you know the advantages and disadvantages of each. Let’s get started.

How Defined Benefit Pension Plans Work

A defined benefit pension plan provides an employee with a lifetime guaranteed income at retirement. The amount you will receive is based on several factors, including your average salary and length of service. With most defined benefit plans, the employer and employee contributes, but the burden of ensuring that the plan remains fully funded falls on the employer.

Defined benefit plans were once the standard pension offered by most employers, but they’ve become increasingly rare because of how costly they are for employers. Most companies have shifted towards less expensive defined contribution plans, with governments and a small number of corporations being among the last defined benefit holdouts.

Defined Benefit: Sample Formula

The method used to determine income under a defined benefit plan varies, but here is an example of a standard formula:

Monthly Pension Based on Final Earnings

The following formula determines the employee’s monthly retirement income by multiplying a percentage of average earnings by the total years of service:

Monthly pension = 2.0% X avg. monthly earnings of the last five years X years of service

For example, an employee earned an average of $80,000 per year during their last five years. If their total years of service was 25 years and they were a member of the pension for that entire time, the employee would receive the following annual pension benefit at retirement:

$80,000 X 2% X 25 = $40,000/year.

This calculation assumes that the employee leaves at their regular retirement date and isn’t subject to any benefit reduction.

Advantages of Defined Benefit Pensions

Defined benefit pensions offer several advantages for employees, and if you’re lucky enough to have a defined benefit plan, you must think long and hard about ever giving it up. Here are some of the key benefits:

Provides a Guaranteed Income for Life

Unlike defined contribution plans, most defined benefit pension plans guarantee a predetermined income for life. This guarantee provides peace of mind knowing that you can count on a specific income amount over and above other sources, like CPP or OAS.

It Makes Retirement Planning Easier

Defined benefit plans make retirement planning easier because you know how much income you will receive. If your pension income isn’t enough to support your desired retirement lifestyle, you can make plans well in advance to cover shortfalls.

Employer Shoulders the Risk

With defined benefit plans, employees can have peace of mind because employers guarantee funds will be available to cover their retirement income. Employers audit their defined benefit plans regularly, and the deficits must be funded solely by the employer if there’s a shortfall of funds.

It Includes Survivor Benefits

If you pass away before your spouse, your defined benefit pension will continue to provide income to your beneficiary for the remainder of their lifetime. The pension company will likely reduce the benefit amount to 50% or 60% of the original figure. However, they may allow your survivor to maintain 100% of your pension income if you opt for a lower payment when you retire.

Disadvantages of Defined Benefit Pensions

Defined benefit plans are desirable, but they aren’t perfect. In an age when employees change jobs several times throughout a career, fewer and fewer people make the most of their defined benefit plans, which would require remaining with the same employer for decades. Here are a few other drawbacks.

They Are Very Costly to Maintain

Because the employer must guarantee a lifetime income, defined benefit pensions are far more costly to maintain than defined contribution plans. As a result, more and more employers are opting out of defined benefits pensions, choosing to go the less costly defined contribution route. That’s a disadvantage to employees who miss out on the peace of mind that comes with a guaranteed income.

Employee Has No Control Over How Funds Are Invested

The employee doesn’t make any investment decisions with a defined benefit plan. While this may be a relief to some, others prefer to have a say in managing their hard-earned retirement nest egg.

There Is Pressure to Work Longer

Many employees feel pressured to stay with the same employer or work longer than they want to receive their maximum pension income at retirement. It’s why defined benefit plans are often called golden handcuffs.

While defined benefit plans allow you to adjust your retirement date, they will reduce your benefit if you go early. As a result, you may stay at your job longer than you had hoped.

Difficult to Understand

Defined benefit plans can be confusing and involve complex actuarial projections. It can be challenging for employees to know the actual value of their pension and make sense of their retirement options.

Employer Could Mismanage the Fund

While unlikely, your entire pension could be compromised if an employer mismanages the pension funds. What happens if your employer goes bankrupt? There are no guarantees that your pension wouldn’t be cut.

How Defined Contribution Pension Plans Work

The contribution is defined with a defined contribution plan instead of the eventual benefit. The employee is responsible for making contributions and a match from the employer. Employees can usually choose how much they wish to contribute and their investment by selecting from fund portfolios representing the various asset mixes, i.e., Conservative, Income, Balanced, and Growth.

More than ever, companies are choosing defined contribution plans over defined benefit plans because they are cheaper for the employer and far easier to administer. The employer is not required to provide a specific monthly benefit after retirement.

Advantages of Defined Contribution Pensions

The advantages of defined contribution plans for the employer are pretty clear. But while most employees would prefer to have a defined benefit plan, they can also gain from being enrolled in a defined contribution plan.

More Control Over Your Investments

You choose how your money is invested. That’s not the case with a defined benefit plan, where all pension funds are pooled together and invested similarly.

Flexible Withdrawal Options

Depending on your employer plan, you may have more options when withdrawing defined contribution funds, either at retirement or leaving the company early.

Disadvantages of Defined Contribution Pensions

While defined contribution plans offer flexibility, they have their drawbacks. Here are some risks you’ll face with this type of plan.

Your Retirement Income is Not Guaranteed

The primary drawback of a defined contribution vs. direct benefit is that your retirement income is not guaranteed. How much money you can draw in retirement will depend on how much you contributed and how your investments performed during your working years. While no one should rely solely on their pension income, this is especially true with a defined contribution plan.

Limited Investment Choices

While you decide how to invest your defined contribution funds, your options will likely be limited to a selection of mutual fund portfolios. Chances are, you won’t be able to purchase lower-cost ETFs, and individual stocks will certainly not be an option.

The Risk Falls on the Employee

Because employers are not responsible for your retirement income, the risk falls to the employee. To minimize that risk, you must remain consistent with your investment contributions and look to build other income sources to draw on once you retire.

Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution: Which Is Better?

While defined benefit plans place most of the risk with the employer, defined contribution pensions are now the norm and offer flexibility, especially if you decide to change jobs. The key to having success with a defined contribution plan is making sure you enroll and maximizing your allowable contributions.

And remember, regardless of the type of pension you have, don’t make it your only source of retirement income. You’ll get CPP and OAS, but that might not be enough. Contribute what you can to other registered products, like RRSPs and TFSAs.


  1. James R

    I think if employers made better offerings for DC pension plans / Group RSPs / DPSPs then there’s a lot of evidence that they could perform better than a DB plan in that, if a member of one of these plans could invest in a set of low cost ETFs they might be further ahead.

    But, these plans are usually tied to expensive mutual funds that eat at returns and therefore are unlikely to come out ahead. So, I’m in the DB camp, but if the environment changes on how other plans can be invested – well, that would be a game changer..

  2. Silvano

    With a Defined Benefit plan, an employee runs the very real risk that if the employer goes bankrupt there will be no pension for them. Look at Sears as a terrible example. I would not gamble with my pension.

    The Defined Contribution plan, you may get less, but there should be no reason for which a a vested plan could be stolen by the employer – even in part. That to me is very important.

  3. Michael

    Within Alberta, for provincial public service employees the employer is the GOA so there is little/no risk of employer bankruptcy. There is plan solvency risk but it would take an extreme economic environment for that to occur. One disadvantage of the DB plan is that the plan member loses the principle of the pension value that’s used to pay the monthly pension unless they receive a commuted value of their pension prior to being locked in for life, but then they have lost their monthly pension and only receive a one-time payment where there could tax consequences as well. One advantage of taking the CV is that you can take ownership of the investing to create your own monthly payments while still retaining the original principle or some form thereof depending on how it’s invested. There could be market risk with this choice however, and you would have to calculate the % yield being provided by the plan to see if you could match it, or better it. This approach has some risks and there is no COLA inherently provided if you invest the CV. One way to mitigate that is to invest in dividend growers but your invested CV would typically fluctuate with the markets but this could still be better than losing 100% of the principle had you taken the plan’s pension for life.

  4. Brett

    My observations as a senior manager in a large megacorp were:

    -surprising how many ees chose not to participate in the matching DC plan or participate at a low level even though participation was on a pre tax basis.

    A significant amount of money is left on the table by employees who do not seem to care despite regular company seminars and webinars. Not certain why this is.

    -a very significant number of DC participants never logged back into their plans to review their investment performance or change their investment choices from one year to the next. The majority stuck with their original investment choice at DC sign up.

  5. Johnny boy

    Pension….what is that! oh the good old days

  6. John

    As pointed out in the article DC plans are lower cost for the employer, and higher risk for the EE. That alone explains why they are a poor deal for EEs. The only exception is lock in, but that could be fixed with pension portability regulations. If our politics cared about retirees, they could fix that.

  7. Tom

    Back in ‘The good old Days’ did the employers have many contribution free holidays with defined benefit plans?

  8. brett

    The reality is that a certain amount of work and effort is required by the employee to realize the full benefits of a DC. Few seem to be willing to do it in my experience.

    Fewer and fewer ees even have a DC plan. And even fewer of those take the time and the effort to understand their DC plan or even bother to access their account to make investment allocation changes over time.

    I have heard people complaining about DC plans and investment choices over the years. My experience is that many of those had not even bothered to access their DC pension accounts in years, let alone truly understand or even research their investment choices. Most especially when plan administrators change or add to those investment selections.

    Preparing for retirement should not be a last minute exercise one or two years prior to retirement yet this is what I have seen numerous DC plan members do. Everyone wants a financially secure retirement.

    If only they spent as much time understanding and managing their respective DC plans as they deciding which TV or dishwasher to buy.

  9. Christopher

    I work for the Federal Government. For me the DB plan that I contribute to is very costly. I am currently paying over $550 biweekly every paycheque as a deduction from my gross pay. This is money I could use right now to pay down my mortgage instead. I realize that when I finally do retire in a number of years I will be better off with a DB pension but it still hurts seeing that money go into an investment that I cannot control.

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