Magazine article USA TODAY

Should You Tap Your 401(k) in an Emergency? (Finance)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Should You Tap Your 401(k) in an Emergency? (Finance)

Article excerpt

You or your spouse have just been laid off and money is tight. There sits your 401(k) plan, plump from several years of good returns, even after the current market slide, waiting for you to use it. Resist the temptation, say many financial planners. Taking money now from your retirement account to pay immediate bills is robbing your financial future.

Before dipping into your retirement account for cash, explore alternatives, the Financial Planning Association, Denver, Colo., recommends. First, don't do anything hasty. You may get a new job more quickly than you think.

Second, cut household expenses as much as possible. If that doesn't bridge the gap between income and expenses, consider tapping into nonretirement financial sources such as taxable savings or money market accounts, cash-value life insurance, or taxable investments such as mutual funds or individual stocks or bonds. Weigh your options carefully before deciding. It might be better to borrow in some cases, rather than to sell some investments.

After all this, the 401(k) may still look appealing. Before tapping into it, be sure to keep these points in mind: You have two ways to use 401(k) assets for an emergency--take money out permanently or borrow. On permanent withdrawals, you will pay regular income taxes, presuming all the contributions in the account were pretax. You also will likely pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the money if you are younger than 59.5.

The obvious downside to taking money out permanently is that you can never put it back and the money can never again grow tax-deferred in the account to help pay for your retirement. This loss of tax-deferred growth could cost you thousands of dollars over the years.

That's why borrowing is usually the preferable option of the two if you must tap your retirement account. While not all 401 (k)s or similar employer-sponsored qualified retirement plans allow loans, the majority do. …

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