401(k) loan can be a short-term cure for credit card debt, but the label carries
Feeling weighted down by big credit
card bills and considering a loan from that fat 401(k) account?
A 401(k) loan may be a short-term cure for debt,
but think before you sign for one -- this is a loan that will require
careful management for several years to come.
It's easy to do
About 75 percent of all 401(k) plans allow employees to borrow from
their accounts, typically up to half of an employee's vested account
balance, or a maximum of $50,000, according to the Profit
Sharing/401(k) Council of America. Most plans that allow people
to borrow require that they pay back loans within five years.
You pay yourself back at a low interest rate
-- typically 1 percent or 2 percent above prime. Plus, there's no
credit check and repaying the loan through payroll deductions is
But experts agree: Proceed with caution and only
use this option as an absolute last resort. Think of a 401(k) account
as a safe haven rather than an emergency fund.
"We feel it's a very bad habit and we would
avoid it at all costs," said Ben Baldwin, a certified financial
planner in Northbrook, Ill. "We try to get people to hang on to
their money for retirement."
The pitfalls to borrowing are plentiful. First,
some companies charge fees including $200 to $400 application fees.
And, unlike 401(k) contributions, loan repayments are yanked from
paychecks after taxes, not before. The loan is taxed again at retirement
when it is withdrawn with the rest of the money in the account.
"The government doesn't care. They don't even
apologize." said Dee Lee, a certified financial planner and author
of The Complete Idiot's Guide to 401(k) Plans.
And the more money borrowed from a 401(k) account, the less the
investment can grow. Things get worse if people try to avoid double
deductions from their paycheck by stopping regular 401(k) contributions
while they're repaying the loan.
"You do that a couple of times during your working
career and you can really sabotage your retirement," Lee said. "It's
the difference between salmon and tuna fish."
And borrowers should consider their level of
job security. A person with an outstanding 401(k) loan who leaves
a job better be prepared to pay up -- fast. Most plans require the
loan to be paid within 30 to 90 days.
If the loan is not repaid, it is considered
a default and the outstanding loan balance is treated like an early
withdrawal. It is taxed as ordinary income, and a 10 percent penalty
is collected if the borrower is under the age of 59 ½.
Say a person had an outstanding balance of $1,000
when they were suddenly laid off. If they were in the 28 percent
tax bracket they would owe $280 in federal taxes, plus any state
taxes, plus $100 penalty for early withdrawal.
"You're only getting $620 out of $1,000 after
taxes," said Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated
Credit Counseling Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"That's almost 40 percent in taxes. That's huge.
That's an expensive loan."
can be severe
And that's precisely why so many financial planners advise against
the loans in the first place. The taxes and penalties that occur
if a person fails to repay the loan are just too severe.
And, as Baldwin points out, owing money to a
credit card company is one thing, owing money to the federal government
is quite another.
"Uncle Sam's about the most impatient lender
out there," Baldwin said. "I see a hole being dug."
That hole will seem especially deep if a person
continues to charge away on their credit cards after paying them
off with the 401(k) loan.
"When doing any kind of borrowing, people need
to understand ... what got them in the hole in the first place,"
Lee said. "You've got to stop the cycle. Otherwise, it will go on
to think about
Before borrowing from a 401(k), consider these questions:
- Is it practical to make loan payments and
still make contributions to the 401(k) plan?
- Can credit card spending be curbed?
- Is the job secure?
- Can the loan be paid off on short notice
if the job is lost? Is the risk of taxes and the early withdrawal
- Are there other ways of getting out of credit
card debt? Is it possible to increase monthly payments or get
a lower rate card rate? What about cashing in a mutual fund or
a savings account?
As a general rule, you should avoid raiding
your 401(k) except as a last resort.