When Is Getting a 401(k) Loan a Good Idea?

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By Maryalene LaPonsie

Don't do it! That's the conventional wisdom about taking out a 401(k) loan. And as someone who took out one, left her job and found herself shelling out big bucks in taxes and penalties, I'm not about to argue with conventional wisdom.

However, people stretched financially thin may think otherwise. They may see their 401(k) account as a tempting source of cash. To help those of you thinking about dipping into your account, we want to take a moment to review what you need to know about these loans. I also contacted two certified financial planners so you wouldn't have to take my word for it.

I fully expected both planners to say 401(k) loans are nothing but bad news, and certainly, they both expressed extreme concern about people dipping into their retirement savings. But I was also surprised to hear that a 401(k) loan may make sense in some limited situations. Before we get to those, let's start with the basics of 401(k) loans.

Basics of 401(k) Loans

Named after a section of the tax code, traditional 401(k) plans allow you to put money aside, tax-free, for retirement. After a few years of regular contributions, these plans can carry a nice balance, which may start to look like a handy cash cow.

While there is no requirement that 401(k) plans allow loans, many do. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, those that do allow loans can let participants take out up to 50 percent of their vested account balance, or $50,000, whichever is less. Typically, these loans are paid back over a maximum of five years, although, in some cases, a longer payback period may be arranged. On occasion, the IRS issues special rules, such as after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma when those affected were allowed to take loans for their entire vested balance.

Loans from 401(k) accounts do charge an interest rate, but that money is paid back into the plan. This is one reason they may appeal to some workers. Rather than paying interest to a bank or other lender, the worker keeps the interest to pad their retirement account. In addition, repayments are made via a payroll deduction, which makes them convenient, another bonus for some workers.

Why They Aren't Such a Hot Idea

Despite being an apparent source of easy cash, some finance experts say you should be keeping your hands off your 401(k). "Your 401(k) is not a savings account," says Mark Vandevelde, a CFP and wealth partner with Hefty Wealth Partners in Auburn, Indiana. "It is money that should be set aside for long-term goals and never to be touched, in my humble opinion." As Vandevelde sees it, there are three problems with 401(k) loans:
  • Lost investment gains that can reduce your fund balance at retirement.
  • The risk of defaulting on the loan, which could result in taxes and a penalty.
  • The chance you may reduce your 401(k) contributions to afford the loan repayment amount, which again could affect your fund balance at retirement.
"It's not free money," Vandevelde says. "You have to pay it back with regular payroll deductions. Many people end up reducing their actual 401(k) contributions to compensate for the amount they are having to pay back and, therefore, they actually aren't saving as much."

On its website, Principal Financial Group has an example of how this may play out. A 35-year-old who takes out a $5,000 loan and pays it back over five years may find himself with $52,000 less at age 65. The calculation assumes a $150 per-paycheck contribution that is decreased by $44 to accommodate the loan repayment.

Keith Klein, a CFP and owner of Turning Pointe Wealth Management in Phoenix, agrees with Vandevelde that a 401(k) loan shouldn't be your first choice for cash. "The key to remember is when you take money out, it has to be paid back in five years," Klein says. "If you default, that money will be considered income, and you'll have to pay taxes plus a 10 percent penalty."

Plus, a lot can happen in five years, and if you find yourself taking a new job opportunity, you'd better be ready to pay up. "A lot of people don't realize what happens when you leave [or] get fired from your job and you have an outstanding 401(k) loan," Vandevelde says. "It becomes immediately due and has to be paid in full. If you cannot pay it back, the remaining balance is considered a distribution and is subject to tax and a 10 percent penalty if [you're] under age 59½."

When a 401(k) Loan Might Make Sense

Despite the financial perils associated with a 401(k) loan, Klein says there may be times when it makes sense to take one out. "Now, I'm not recommending you take loans out," he says, "but there are circumstances when life doesn't go perfectly."

For example, an older worker who is losing a job may find taking out a loan and letting it default could be a better option than paying their bills with the credit card until they find other employment or are old enough to claim Social Security. While the money will become taxable income, the 10 percent penalty no longer applies once an individual turns 59½.

Divorce or disability could be other scenarios in which a 401(k) loan may be a better way to bridge an income gap in an emergency situation. Still, Klein says it's not an ideal option. "Having a [cash] reserve is always the best answer," he notes.

Both Vandevelde and Klein say that, unfortunately, far too many people rush into a 401(k) loan, or they use them for purchases such as vacations, cars or even big screen TVs. For those sorts of purchases, both financial planners agree a 401(k) is not the right source of money.

So going back to the question in the headline: Is getting a 401(k) loan a good idea? Given the drawbacks listed above, it's probably not ever a good idea, but in some unique situations, it may be the best of your not-so-great options.

Of course, rather than waiting to find yourself in an emergency with limited options, a better course of action would be to get out of debt and bulk up your savings account now. If you're not sure how, subscribe to the Money Talks News newsletter to get the best personal finance tips and advice delivered straight to your inbox each day. We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash. It doesn't cost a dime, so why wait?
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