Think About What Would Happen If You Lost Your Job
This is really important. If you lose your job, or change jobs, you cant take your 401 loan with you. In most cases you have to pay back the loan at termination or within sixty days of leaving your job. This is a big consideration. If you need the loan in the first place, how will you have the money to pay it back on short notice? And if you fail to pay back the loan within the specified time period, the outstanding balance will likely be considered a distribution, again subject to income taxes and penalties, as I discussed above. So while you may feel secure in your job right now, youd be wise to at least factor this possibility into your decision to borrow.
Smart Move: To lessen the odds of having to take a 401 loan, try to keep cash available to cover three to six months of essential living expenses in case of an emergency.
Weighing Pros And Cons
Before you determine whether to borrow from your 401 account, consider the following advantages and drawbacks to this decision.
On the plus side:
- You usually dont have to explain why you need the money or how you intend to spend it.
- You may qualify for a lower interest rate than you would at a bank or other lender, especially if you have a low credit score.
- The interest you repay is paid back into your account.
- Since youre borrowing rather than withdrawing money, no income tax or potential early withdrawal penalty is due.
On the negative side:
- The money you withdraw will not grow if it isnt invested.
- Repayments are made with after-tax dollars that will be taxed again when you eventually withdraw them from your account.
- The fees you pay to arrange the loan may be higher than on a conventional loan, depending on the way they are calculated.
- The interest is never deductible even if you use the money to buy or renovate your home.
CAUTION: Perhaps the biggest risk you run is leaving your job while you have an outstanding loan balance. If thats the case, youll probably have to repay the entire balance within 90 days of your departure. If you dont repay, youre in default, and the remaining loan balance is considered a withdrawal. Income taxes are due on the full amount. And if youre younger than 59½, you may owe the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty as well. If this should happen, you could find your retirement savings substantially drained.
Withdrawals After Age 59 1/2
Age 59 1/2 is the magic number when it comes to avoiding the penalties associated with early 401 withdrawals. You can take penalty-free withdrawals from 401 assets that have been rolled over into a traditional IRA when youve reached this age. You can also take a penalty-free withdrawal if your funds are still in the 401 plan, and youve retired.
You can take a withdrawal penalty-free if youre still working after you reach age 59 1/2, but the rules change a bit. Check with the plan administrator about its specific rules if youre still working at the company with which you have your 401 assets.
Your plan might offer an in-service withdrawal that allows you to access your 401 assets penalty-free, but not all plans offer this option. And remember, the withdrawal will still be subject to income taxes, even if its not penalized.
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Accessibility Of 401 Funds
The 401 plan has some great features, such as tax-deferred status, matching contributions and catch-up provisions for older savers. That said, one of their drawbacks is lack of accessibility. The structure of a 401 account is different from that of a traditional individual retirement account .
While an IRA is held in the name of the account holder, a 401 account is held in the name of an individual’s employer on the individual’s behalf. The specific 401 plan offered through the employer governs the circumstances under which individuals can withdraw money from the account, and many employers only allow early withdrawals in the event of severe financial hardship. This basic structural fact regarding 401 accounts is one of the main factors that present obstacles to using account funds as collateral for a loan.
One of the other primary reasons stems from the fact that these accounts are specifically protected from creditors by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. Therefore, if a 401 were used as collateral for a loan, the creditor would have no means of collecting from the account in the event the borrower defaulted on the loan payments.
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Caveats To Borrowing From Your 401
Some 401 plans allow a withdrawal in the form of a loan, but some do not. You must check with your 401 plan administrator or investment company to find out whether your plan allows you to borrow against your account balance. You can usually find their contact information on your statement.
Some companies allow for multiple loans.
Those Who Truly Need It
It really comes down to need. If you need to withdraw your money, then withdraw your money. Thats really the essence of the CARES Act. It simply makes a need-based withdrawal less harmful. If you dont need to, then dont, says Brandon Renfro, a financial advisor and assistant professor of finance at East Texas Baptist University.
Its important to consider what things will be like after you take a withdrawal and once things are back to a new normal. Under the CARES Act, you have to repay your withdrawal within three years. If you just need a withdrawal to get you through the next few months before you start earning regular paychecks again, it could be a good option.
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Pros And Cons Of A 401 Loan
There are some people who might say that getting a 401 loan is a good idea while others would disagree. This is why it’s important to compare the pros and cons so you can make the best decision for your situation.
How Does A 401 Loan Work
If your employer provides a 401 retirement savings plan, it may choose to allow participants to borrow against their accounts though not every plan will let you do so. Borrowing from your own 401 doesnt require a credit check, so it shouldnt affect your credit.
As long as you have a vested account balance in your 401, and if your plan permits loans, you can likely be allowed to borrow against it. Just like with any other loan, youll need to repay a loan from your 401 with interest within a set time frame. A key difference with this type of loan, though, is that youre borrowing money from yourself so youre paying yourself back, with interest.
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Dividing Your 401 Assets
If you divorce, your former spouse may be entitled to some of the assets in your 401 account or to a portion of the actual account. That depends on where you live, as the laws governing marital property differ from state to state.
In community property states, you and your former spouse generally divide the value of your accounts equally. In the other states, assets are typically divided equitably rather than equally. That means that the division of your assets might not necessarily be a 50/50 split. In some cases, the partner who has the larger income will receive a larger share.
For your former spouse to get a share of your 401, his or her attorney will ask the court to issue a Qualified Domestic Relations Order . It instructs your plan administrator to create two subaccounts, one that you control and the other that your former spouse controls. In effect, that makes you both participants in the plan. Though your spouse cant make additional contributions, he or she may be able to change the way the assets are allocated.
Your plan administrator has 18 months to rule on the validity of the QDRO, and your spouses attorney may ask that you not be allowed to borrow from your plan, withdraw the assets or roll them into an IRA before that ruling is final. Once the division is final, your former spouse may choose to take the money in cash, roll it into an IRA or leave the assets in the plan.
How Long Before I Must Repay
Typically, you must repay in one to five years, unless the loan is for the purchase of a primary residence. A repayment schedule will be part of the loan agreement. For details, check your plan.
Key takeaway: Before you begin the process of borrowing against your 401, find out whether your plan allows it, how much you can borrow, what the interest rate is and how long you have to repay.
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Other Alternatives To A 401 Loan
Borrowing from yourself may be a simple option, but its probably not your only option. Here are a few other places to find money.
Use your savings. Your emergency cash or other savings can be crucial right now and why you have emergency savings in the first place. Always try to find the best rate on an online savings account so that youre earning the highest amount on your funds.
Take out a personal loan. Personal loan terms could be easier for you to repay without having to jeopardize your retirement funds. Depending on your lender, you can get your money within a day or so. 401 loans might not be as immediate.
Try a HELOC. A home equity line of credit, or HELOC, is a good option if you own your home and have enough equity to borrow against. You can take out what you need, when you need it, up to the limit youre approved for. As revolving credit, its similar to a credit card and the cash is there when you need it.
Get a home equity loan. This type of loan can usually get you a lower interest rate, but keep in mind that your home is used as collateral. This is an installment loan, not revolving credit like a HELOC, so its good if you know exactly how much you need and what it will be used for. While easier to get, make sure you can pay this loan back or risk going into default on your home.
Borrowing From An Old 401
If you are no longer working for the company where your 401 plan resides, you may not take out a new 401 loan unless your plan specifically allows for it. You may transfer the balance from a former employer to your new 401 plan, and if your current employer plan allows for loans, then you can borrow from there. If you transfer your old 401 to an IRA, you cannot borrow from the IRA. It is best to know all the rules before you cash out or transfer an old 401 plan.
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How To Take Out A 401 Loan
If youre really in a pinch, or absolutely cant get an alternative loan source, you can take a 401 loan by talking to your human resources or benefits manager at work, or by logging into your 401 plans website.
Some plan providersincluding John Hancock and Fidelityallow you to request loans online.
What Other Options Are There If You Need Cash
- If you have a Roth IRA for five years, you can withdraw your original contributions at any age, free of federal taxes and penalties.
- For education expenses, explore scholarships or student loans.
- You can borrow for school but not for retirement.You can borrow against the value of your home with a home equity loan or home equity line of credit.
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How Often Can You Borrow From 401
If your employer allows multiple 401 loans, you can borrow more than one loan at a time. However, any new loan should not exceed the plan loan limit. 401 plans place limitations on borrowing from 401 over a 12-month rolling period. This means that, if you took two loans between February of the previous year and February of the current year, and you have used up the loan limit, you cannot borrow another loan in the same period even if you paid the first loan early. Hence, you will have to wait after the 12-month period to take another loan.
Is A 401 Loan Taxable Income
Your remaining loan balance is considered to be a distribution if you leave your job while you have an outstanding 401 loan, unless you repay it. You can avoid taking the tax hit by rolling over the outstanding balance into an IRA or another eligible retirement plan by the due date for filing your federal income tax return for the year in which the loan was characterized as a distribution.
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Can You Pay Off A 401 Loan Early
Yes, loans from a 401 plan can be repaid early with no prepayment penalty. Many plans offer the option of repaying loans through regular payroll deductions, which can be increased to pay off the loan sooner than the five-year requirement. Remember that those payments are made with after-tax dollars unlike contributions, which are made before taxes.
Bad Reasons To Borrow Against A 401k
If youre borrowing money for ordinary expenses that should be part of your budget like mortgage or rent payments you have a spending problem. These are not unexpected expenses they are what it costs to live your life. You either need to spend less money or make more, ideally both.
Your 401k is also not an emergency fund. You should have at least $1000 in an emergency fund and ultimately six months worth of expenses. That is the money you use for an unexpected expense like a significant car or home repair.
Your 401k is not a source of discretionary spending. Do not pay for things like a vacation or a house full of new furniture. Those are things you have to save up for. Your 401k isnt savings its retirementsavings.
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Leaving Work With An Unpaid Loan
Suppose you take a plan loan and then lose your job. You will have to repay the loan in full. If you don’t, the full unpaid loan balance will be considered a taxable distribution, and you could also face a 10% federal tax penalty on the unpaid balance if you are under age 59½. While this scenario is an accurate description of tax law, it doesn’t always reflect reality.
At retirement or separation from employment, many people often choose to take part of their 401 money as a taxable distribution, especially if they are cash-strapped. Having an unpaid loan balance has similar tax consequences to making this choice. Most plans do not require plan distributions at retirement or separation from service.
People who want to avoid negative tax consequences can tap other sources to repay their 401 loans before taking a distribution. If they do so, the full plan balance can qualify for a tax-advantaged transfer or rollover. If an unpaid loan balance is included in the participant’s taxable income and the loan is subsequently repaid, the 10% penalty does not apply.
The more serious problem is to take 401 loans while working without having the intent or ability to repay them on schedule. In this case, the unpaid loan balance is treated similarly to a hardship withdrawal, with negative tax consequences and perhaps also an unfavorable impact on plan participation rights.