Borrowing against a 401(k): a very bad idea

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As the threat of foreclosure continues to mount for many homeowners, the temptation to borrow against a 401(k) increases. Very bad idea, yet one that occurred to 13-19% more 401(k) holders in 2007. A recent article in CFO Magazine details a few of the ugly scenarios that can result.

Yes, many companies offer loan programs as part of their 401(k) programs as an incentive to get employees to participate. Employee loans against 401(k) balances are bad for both employers and employees. Not only is it a huge administrative headache for employers, but employees often get caught if their are any discrepancies or inaccuracies in the amortization schedule for repayment. Like the IRS will care that someone in the HR department made a mistake. The employee is solely responsible for any and all payback irregularities.

One of the advantages of participating in a 401(k) program is to take advantage of the free money from matching employer contributions as well as compound interest on contributions. Neither of these advantages occur when an employee stops making new contributions and merely repays the borrowed amount. Problems mount exponentially if an employee loses his or her job while owing money against the 401(k) balance. Just when the employee is most at financial risk, the outstanding amount must be repaid in full or the IRS will consider the loan or withdrawal as ordinary income and tax it accordingly. There is a 10% penalty if the borrower is under age 59 1/2.

The IRS does allow for hardship withdrawals from a 401(k) to avoid foreclosure of a primary residence, but the long term savings consequences are staggering. A 5 year, $8,200 loan can have a $62,000 impact on the 401(k) bottom line. Cutting expenses, renegotiating with creditors, getting a second job, are just a few of the much better alternatives for financially strapped homeowners.

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