There it is. It’s just sitting there, and you need it. Why not take advantage of it. It’s your money after all. If you need money, and you have money in your retirement account, it can be very tempting to borrow from it.
Most retirement plans allow participants to borrow against their balances. About one in five 401(k) participants have an outstanding loan, and over a five-year period, almost 40 percent of participants borrow from their account at some point. Most loans are taken to pay off debt, usually of the credit card variety.
That can make some sense, since the loan rate on a 401(k) loan is lower than rates on credit cards. But there are other costs beyond the interest rate. While you are essentially borrowing from yourself, there are several consequences to taking the loan that make this a bad idea.
- While your loan is outstanding, your money is not invested in the market. You are earning the interest on the loan to yourself, but you are missing out on the greater growth you could get from stock market-oriented investments. The market rate of return is the true cost of your loan. Historically the stock market has returned on average 10 percent per year.
- Some employers don’t allow you to make contributions while you have a loan outstanding. If that is the case with your plan, you will miss out on the opportunity to grow your retirement account balance. If your employer matches contributions, you will also miss out on that.
- Your loan is repaid with after-tax dollars. When you retire, the money you repaid, like the rest of your balance, will be taxed when you take it out to meet your living expenses. So your loan will be taxed twice.
- If you leave or are let go from your job, you will only have sixty days to repay the loan or it will be considered a distribution. The distribution will be taxed as ordinary income in the year you take it, and you will pay an additional 10 percent penalty.
Instead of taking out a loan from your retirement account, consider what other options you have. If you are consolidating debt, have you considered taking advantage of a zero or low interest promotion on a credit card? Instead of adding to your debt, can you reduce your spending either by cutting discretionary expenses or by making bigger changes to lower the cost of where you live or how you get around?
To avoid using your 401(k) as an ATM, make sure you have an emergency fund. You should have at least three months of mandatory expenses saved in an easily accessible account, such as a bank savings account or a money market mutual fund. If you have a high deductible health care plan, work toward saving enough to cover at least the deductible. And make sure you are setting aside money for those big expenses, like home and auto repairs, that you know will come up, but you don’t know when.
In some cases, a loan on your retirement account may be the best of a few bad options, but that doesn’t make it a good one. There are costs that aren’t obvious, and they put you at risk of a big tax bill if you lose your job. Avoid having to make the choice by saving ahead for emergencies and other big expenses.
For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.