How Early Withdrawals Can Tax Your Retirement Savings

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By Emily Brandon

Taking money out of your 401(k) before age 59½ typically results in taxes and penalties on the amount withdrawn. Investors who take early withdrawals also miss out on the tax-deferred growth their savings would have accumulated if they had left the money in the 401(k) plan or rolled it over to an individual retirement account. Here's what happens when you take an early 401(k) withdrawal and how to limit the fallout.

Income tax. Regular income tax is due on each withdrawal from your traditional 401(k) plan. A worker in the 25 percent tax bracket who withdraws $10,000 from a 401(k) plan will owe $2,500 in federal income taxes on it, and perhaps more in state income taxes. When you receive a 401(k) distribution, 20 percent will typically be withheld for income tax purposes. So, when you withdraw $10,000 from a 401(k) account, you will actually only receive $8,000. You will need to come up with any additional tax you owe from the distribution itself or another source. "Many people who have cash-outs when they leave a job often are not leaving their job voluntarily, and some of this is being used as a temporary stopgap measure," says Jack VanDerhei, research director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. "If you have a situation where you don't absolutely have to have the money, you should keep as much in the tax-advantaged accounts as possible."

You can avoid paying income tax on your 401(k) balance when you change jobs by leaving it in the 401(k) plan, rolling it over to an IRA or depositing the money in your new employer's 401(k) plan. If you've already taken a cash distribution, you can still avoid paying tax on it if you put the entire amount, including the withheld 20 percent, into another tax-deferred account within 60 days. A 401(k) loan can also give you access to your retirement stash without paying income tax on it, but you have to pay it back with interest, and if you leave the job, the loan typically becomes due. If you can't pay it back, the loan balance can become an early taxable distribution. "In virtually every case I can think of, I'd rather go with the loan," VanDerhei says. "You have flexibility, you have the ability to put the money back in the account on a tax-advantaged basis and you can most likely avoid being taxed on it."

Early withdrawal penalty. If you are under age 59½ when you take a 401(k) distribution, you must pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty in addition to income tax on the amount withdrawn. A 50-year-old in the 25 percent tax bracket who withdraws $10,000 from his 401(k) will forfeit over a third of the withdrawal, including $2,500 in federal income tax and $1,000 for the early withdrawal penalty. However, there are several exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty. If you lose or leave your job at age 55 or later (or age 50 for public safety employees), you can take distributions from the 401(k) associated with that job without penalty. You can also avoid the early withdrawal penalty if you are totally and permanently disabled, have medical expenses that exceed 10 percent (or 7.5 percent for those born before Jan. 2, 1949) of your adjusted gross income or are a member of the military reserve and take the distribution during a period of active duty that exceeds 179 days. Another strategy to avoid the penalty is to set up a series of substantially equal periodic payments at least annually over your life expectancy using a distribution method approved by the Internal Revenue Service.

Lost investment growth. An even bigger cost to early 401(k) distributions is the investment gains you would have gotten if you simply left the money in the account to grow. If you have $10,000 in a 401(k) account at age 30 and leave it there without any additional contributions, it will grow to $106,766 by age 65, assuming 7 percent annual returns. If you instead withdraw that money at age 30 and are in the 25 percent tax bracket, you will only get $6,500 after paying income tax and the early withdrawal penalty. "If you're young, time will do some heavy lifting for you," says Therese Govern, a certified financial planner for Therese Govern Financial Advisors in Seattle. "You want to keep it in that tax-deferred wrapper until retirement." Outside of a retirement account, your savings will compound more slowly because you may need to pay taxes on the gains each year.

Less money in retirement. Many workers dip into their 401(k) plans early as a result of job loss or another financial setback. "When families experience financial shortfalls, their 401(k) accounts are often the only financial safety net they have," says Marianne Cooper, a Stanford University research associate and author of "Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times." "In hard times, families rely on these accounts so they can keep paying the bills." But while an early 401(k) withdrawal may solve the immediate problem, it can create other financial complications later on.

Early 401(k) withdrawals can necessitate delaying retirement or lowering your retirement standard of living if you don't take steps to get your retirement finances back on track. "While a necessary stopgap measure, withdrawing money from their retirement accounts puts families at risk in the future," Cooper says. "Since few families can pay back what they withdrew, many will have a significantly smaller nest egg to live on later in life. A lot of people will never have enough to be able to retire."

Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at

10 Cities Your Financial Adviser Is Begging You Not To Retire To
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How Early Withdrawals Can Tax Your Retirement Savings
  • Cost of living -- 114.1
  • State tax burden -- 8.4 percent
  • Median house price -- $377,625, per
  • Climate -- 69/39 January, 105/75 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
Scottsdale is a retirement mecca, with a reasonable cost of living, state and local taxes well below the national average, a great quality of life and plenty of amenities. But housing costs are nearly double the national average. Winters are warm, but summers are sizzling hot. Peak temperatures can reach close to 120 degrees -- after all, it's in the desert. The locals will dismiss it as "dry heat," but that kind of heat will still send your electric bill for air conditioning soaring, and can necessitate you buying new cars more frequently than you'd like.
  • Cost of living -- 130.0
  • State tax burden -- 9.3 percent
  • Median house price -- $417,600, per
  • Climate -- 74/64 January, 89/80 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list

Key West offers Caribbean weather in the U.S., an attribute that makes it a natural choice for retirees. And who could resist the Jimmy Buffett-Parrot Head thing, especially once you're living a life of leisure? 

You might be better off if you resist. The cost of living is 30 percent higher than the U.S. average, and housing costs at least twice as much. Travel is another issue. Key West is the most remote location in the continental U.S. The only road off the 6-square-mile island is the Overseas Highway, a 127.5-mile causeway that is largely one lane in each direction.

Hurricanes -- all too common in Florida -- are rare in Key West  -- though Wilma did hit it in 2005. But when they do impact the island, though, it's worth noting that the city has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, and there's no part of it that's more than 18 feet above sea level. So homeowners must pay several thousand dollars a year for hurricane insurance.

  • Cost of living -- 132.3
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $482,000
  • Climate -- 66/50 January, 77/67 August
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
As big California cities go, San Diego is a bargain. But compared to the rest of the country, San Diego is certified high-cost. Yes, the weather is near perfect year-round. But the cost of living is one-third higher than the rest of the country, and house prices are nearly 2½ times the national average. Add in California's high state and local tax rates and the earthquake issue, and San Diego should be crossed off your list of potential retirement cities.
  • Cost of living -- 165.7
  • State tax burden -- 10.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $680,000
  • Climate -- 80/66 January, 88/75 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Second worst gridlock in U.S.
Can you imagine a more idyllic place to retire than Honolulu? Probably not. But as beautiful as it is, it shares many of the financial strains common to other cities on this list, plus a few more.

The overall cost of living is second only to New York City. After all, most of the goods people need have to be shipped across thousands of miles of ocean. The state tax burden is only slightly higher than the national average, but the median house price is triple the national average.

Finally, as far as cost of living is concerned, Honolulu has an unusual financial issue: travel expenses. Sooner or later, you'll want to get away from Hawaii. And there's no cheap way to escape from this paradise.
  • Cost of living -- 164.0
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $860,000
  • Climate -- 57/46 January, 70/55 September
  • Traffic congestion -- Third worst gridlock in U.S.
San Francisco frequently makes those "favorite cities in America" lists and for good reason. Situated on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, it is one of the most scenic cities in the world. Mild weather year-round, world class cuisine, charming neighborhoods and an eclectic population make it one of the most desirable places to live anywhere in the world.

But it has the highest median house prices in the country, which should scare off retirees. Its cost of living trails only New York City and Honolulu. And like the rest of California, its state and local tax burden is second only to New York.

One other reason people might avoid living in San Francisco is that it's prone to earthquakes. While that's certainly a concern for personal safety, few people from non-earthquake prone areas realize how it increases your cost of living. Homeowners need to pay several thousand dollars per year for earthquake insurance.
  • Cost of living -- 140.1
  • State/district tax burden -- 4.0 percent on first $10,000 and up to 8.95 percent on income greater than $350,000 in D.C., 10.2 percent in Maryland, 9.3 percent in Virginia
  • Median house price -- $395,000
  • Climate -- 43/29 January, 88/71 July
  • Traffic congestion -- 10th worst gridlock in U.S.
Washington is centrally located, is filled with historic attractions and has some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country. It also has one of the highest effective local income tax rates in the country. The district taxes the first $10,000 of income at 4 percent, then 6 percent to $40,000, then 8.5 percent on all income over $40,000 (you can exempt up to $3,000 in retirement income).

Like other cities on this list, Washington sports a high cost of living and some of the highest housing prices in the country. The area also has its share of toll roads, and traffic is a recurring problem. This is especially troublesome during the holidays and summer months. Interstate 95 -- which bisects the metro area -- is the principal travel corridor between the Northeast and Florida. Making traffic matters worse: the near-permanent road construction projects.
  • Cost of living -- 136.4
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $456,000
  • Climate -- 68/48 January, 83/64 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Worst gridlock in U.S.
As recently as the 1970s, Los Angeles was widely viewed as the city that all America was looking to move to -- or at least to imitate. Perfect weather, endless beaches, palm tree-lined streets, plentiful housing, a powerhouse economy and the lure of rubbing elbows with a celebrity or two. Today, about the only things L.A. has going for it are near-perfect weather and In-N-Out Burger. The rest is mostly a faded memory. The city's success was, in fact, a key contributor to its decline: The near-doubling of the metro population since the 1970s has created East Coast levels of human congestion.

Property values are higher than New York's and nearly twice those of Chicago. The state and local tax burden in California is second only to New York, and the overall cost of living in L.A. is more than one-third higher than the national average. California's unfunded pension liabilities are nearly as high as those in Illinois, threatening serious tax increases that could squeeze retirees. Nagging quality of life issues include the worst traffic congestion in the nation and smog that could lead to higher medical costs.
  • Cost of living -- 132.5
  • State tax burden -- 10.4 percent
  • Median house price -- $370,000
  • Climate -- 36/22 January, 81/65 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Ninth worst gridlock in U.S.
Boston is the quaintest large city in America, sporting centuries-old but impeccably maintained architecture, neighborhoods and surrounding communities that just ooze with charm and close access to the beaches of Cape Cod and the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. If Boston were a less expensive place to live, it could well be an popular and smart retirement destination.

But it isn't. The high cost of living and high housing prices are the main reasons cited by former residents for leaving the state. The state tax burden is higher than the national average; the cost of living is about one-third higher than the national average; and house prices are nearly double the U.S. median. Translation: a large chunk of your retirement income would be spent just covering basic living expenses.
  • Cost of living -- 116.9
  • State tax burden - 10.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $247,000
  • Climate -- 32/18 January, 84/68 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
Based on the numbers, Chicago wouldn't seem to be the retirement financial disaster that other cities on this list are. The state tax burden is only slightly higher than the national average; the cost of living is tolerably higher than the U.S. average; and house prices -- while higher than the nation in general -- are downright affordable compared to the coastal cities.

However, in addition to being a generally more expensive place to live than the nation at large, the area faces burgeoning problems just over the horizon. Illinois faces the highest unfunded pension obligations of any other state in the country, at around $100 billion. Chicago faces a nation-leading $20 billion unfunded pension liability. Such deficits scream out for higher taxes across the board. We can only speculate as to which taxes will be raised (or created).
  • Cost of living -- 216.7 Manhattan, 145.7 Nassau County
  • State tax burden -- 12.8 percent
  • Median house price -- $972,000 Manhattan, $440,000 Nassau County
  • Climate -- 38/27 January, 84/69 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Fifth worst gridlock in U.S.
The area has fantastic amenities -– theater, music, concerts, festivals, ethnic foods, diverse and quaint neighborhoods and close access to beaches and mountains. It also has probably the most comprehensive public transportation system in the U.S. But it breaks down spectacularly when it comes to the costs. The area has close to the highest cost of living in the country, which gets markedly worse the closer you are to Manhattan. House prices are out of sight, particularly in the more desirable communities and neighborhoods. New York State has the highest state and local tax burden in the country. New Jersey has the highest real estate tax burden in the country. And nearby Connecticut isn't much better.

Weather runs from winter-time deep freezes to protracted summer heat waves. The preponderance of bridges, tunnels and their tolls -- as well as antiquated roads running through quaint town centers -- makes congestion a constant problem, even on the weekends.
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