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FAQ about 401(k)s

As traditional pensions fade into obsolescence, the 401(k) plan is becoming the core retirement asset for more and more workers. Here are some frequently asked questions with answers from our experts.


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Would it be a good idea to take money from my retirement plan to build a house? I have lost about 40 percent over the past year or so. I know that there will be penalty and taxes of about 32 percent, but is getting out now worth it to invest in home equity?

Watching your account balance decline in your 401(k), 403(b) or IRA account is a gut-wrenching experience. You think, if only I had been smart enough to see that the stock market was heading for a fall. If it helps, you weren't alone.

Let's say you had $100,000 in a 401(k) account and you watched that account decline to $60,000. Paying income taxes plus a penalty tax of 10 percent for an early withdrawal, assuming that your 32 percent is correct, would result in you having $34,800 to invest in a home.

I've put together an example that compares your investment in real estate to just holding on to your retirement account over the next 20 years. In it I assume that your home appreciates in value by 3 percent annually while a stock portfolio appreciates 9 percent a year.

The stock appreciation value is quite conservative for a well-diversified portfolio of stocks. After all, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, an index of the largest capitalization stocks in the U.S. market has averaged 12.7 percent annual returns in the 10 years ending Sept. 30, 2001.

We'll assume that you would pay the same in rent ($903 a month) as you would pay in mortgage payments. Another assumption -- at the end of 20 years, you're in the 28 percent tax bracket and you'll have to pay taxes on the profits in your retirement portfolio (in this case, $94,154 in taxes).





Purchase price:



Down payment:



Loan amount:




Loan rate:



Monthly payment:




Twenty years later:




Appraised value based on 3% annual appreciation:



Loan balance:



Home equity:



Note: The retirement scenario assumes that you rent and that the rental expense is the same as your monthly loan payments plus taxes and insurance for the home purchase scenario.

I realize these figures are all pie-in-the-sky calculations. You don't know how your real estate investment will appreciate over time any more than you can know how the stock market will do over time.

My point is that keeping that $25,200 working for you in your retirement account vs. paying it out to the IRS in taxes and penalties can mean a lot for your retirement. You have to weigh how close you are to your planned retirement, and how comfortable you are with the long-term prospects of real estate or the stock market before you decide which decision is right for you.

Get professional help from a fee-only certified financial planner if you can't decide. The CFP Board of Standards can help you find and select a financial planner in your area.top of page

We have a great deal of credit card debt and are able to borrow from my husband's retirement to pay some of it off. The loan will be for only five years and will be repaid through a payroll deduction. Is this wise?

Yours is a common problem. You're saving for retirement, but not living within your means. Now you want to pay off your current debt by tapping your retirement savings.

If your credit cards have an average rate of 17 percent and the loan from your retirement plan is at 8 percent, then it seems an easy decision to borrow from your retirement plan to pay off this debt. The chart below will help you frame the decision given the particulars of your situation.

In most 401(k) plans you can borrow up to 50 percent of your vested balance, but not more than $50,000. You have to pay the money back with interest over five years (longer if the loan is for a principal residence).

The good news is that the interest payments are going into your retirement account and not to the credit card company. The downside is that the original contributions to the account were made with pretax dollars, but the loan payments will be made with after-tax dollars.

If you're in the 31 percent marginal federal income tax bracket, it will take $1.45 in wages or salary to replace each dollar you borrowed from the account -- plus interest. The interest payments aren't tax deductible and will be considered as earnings in the account. When you take qualified distributions in retirement, you'll pay income tax on the distributions including the interest expense you paid on the loan.

If you don't repay the loan, you will owe both the income tax and a 10 percent penalty tax on the early distribution. If your husband's 401(k) plan is like most plans, the loan will become due immediately if he leaves the company.

I've taken a hypothetical situation to show the savings associated with using the 401(k) loan at 8 percent and comparing it to paying off a credit card balance at 17 percent.

You can put together your own table by using Bankrate's loan payment calculator to calculate the monthly payments and the savings calculator to determine the value of the loan payments reinvested over the next five years vs. how the account would grow if you didn't withdraw money to pay off your credit cards.

401(k) loan vs. credit card repayment comparison
401(k) loan at 8%
Credit card at 17%
Loan amount
Monthly loan payment
Total payments
(monthly payment x 60 months)
Interest expense
(Total payments -- loan amount)
401(k) loan payments reinvested @ 10% APR for 5 years
$25,000 remains in 401(k) earning 10% APR for 5 years

In this case it makes sense to borrow from the 401(k). You've saved almost $7,000 in interest expense and you've freed up $115 in your monthly budget that you could use to pay back the loan faster. Put in your own numbers to make the worksheet relevant to you.

The three big concerns to avoid are: You take this as an opportunity to run up your credit card balances again; you stop making any contributions to your retirement accounts other than the loan payment; your husband leaves the company and is forced to pay the loan in full within 90 days of leaving the firm.

Putting money aside for the future requires that you spend less than you make. If you're not doing that, you need to get to the point where you are. If you're spending like there's no tomorrow, then don't be surprised if tomorrow comes and you don't have any money to spend.top of page

I've changed jobs and am confused about what to do with my 401(k) account from my old job. I was told that I could either cash out or roll it over into an IRA account. I already have a traditional IRA. What should I do?

Avoid the temptation to just take the money and pay the taxes and penalties.

Most employers require you to close the account if you have less than $5,000 in the account. Keep your options open by doing a direct transfer into an IRA rollover account. If you keep the money separate from your traditional IRA account you'll be able to move the IRA rollover account into your new employers' 401(k) plan after you've met their length of employment requirement.

A direct transfer means the money is transferred from the 401(k) account directly into the IRA Rollover account.

If you accept a check, then the money in the account will be subject to mandatory withholding. That means that 20 percent of the money in the account will be sent to the government. Fully funding the IRA rollover will then require you to come up with an amount equal to the withheld amount to deposit with the check. Otherwise the withheld amount will be treated as an early distribution and is subject to income taxes and a 10 percent penalty. It's much easier to just do a direct transfer.

Where to transfer the money? There are literally thousands of choices. Remember that you aren't obligated to later roll the money into your new employer's 401(k) account. It can stay in the IRA Rollover account. My rule of thumb for small investors is to concentrate your investments in diversified mutual funds. If you have $5,000 to invest you don't need five mutual funds. One or two will be just fine.

I suggest that you deal directly with a no-load mutual fund family such as Dodge & Cox, Federated, Fidelity, Janus, or Vanguard. You're trying to manage the annual expenses in the mutual funds, avoid sales loads and not invest in annuities.

Morningstar is a good site to shop for mutual funds. Some small investors like the idea of a hybrid fund that invests in both stocks and bonds. Two examples of this type of fund are Vanguard's Wellington Fund and Dodge & Cox's Balanced Fund.top of page

I'm twenty-something and have the opportunity to participate in my company's 401(k) plan with a 50 percent match. How should I allocate my money at this point in my life?

This is the most important question an investor can ask. Deciding on an asset allocation and rebalancing your portfolio every year to keep the percentages where you want them are the keys to maximizing returns and minimizing risk.

Before you can decide on an asset allocation for your 401(k) plan, you need to understand the three main mutual fund categories:

1. Investment objective: Conservative or aggressive? Life's a trade-off.
Conservative investors trade lower returns for lower risk and preservation of capital. Owning bonds is less risky than owning stocks, and owning stocks in large U.S. companies is less risky than owning stocks in small, foreign companies. The older you get, the more conservative your investing should become.

Aggressive investors trade higher risks and periods of high anxiety for higher returns. With a lifetime of investing ahead of you, you can afford to take a more aggressive approach; but you have to stay the course. The stock market is volatile; when it takes a dive, you have to hold tight, believing it will follow its historical pattern of bouncing back and moving forward in the future.

2. Investment style: Growth, value or blend?
Growth funds look for companies whose sales and earnings are growing faster than average; the stock price is usually expensive in relation to current earnings. In other words, the price/earnings ratio (P/E ratio) will be high.

Value style funds look for companies with stock prices that are cheap, relative to their current earnings. In other words, the P/E ratio will be low. Read "What is value investing?" for more on this investment style.

Blend funds use a combination of investment styles.

3. Size of company: Large-cap, mid-cap or small-cap?
"Cap" means "capitalization." A company's market-capitalization is its share price multiplied by the number of shares owned by investors.

Large-cap funds invest in large companies; mid-cap funds in medium-size companies; small-cap funds in small companies. For more on this, read "What is market capitalization?"

Suggested asset allocations


Medium risk






















For more information on the various types of mutual funds, visit the Morningstar Web site. Morningstar is the leading provider of independent data, analysis and editorial commentary on mutual funds.

Do yourself a favor and use the free Morningstar "Quicktake Reports" to check out the mutual funds offered by your company's 401(k) plan. Among other things you'll learn the name and tenure of the fund managers, what fees they charge, investment styles, size of companies the funds invest in, performance data and risk/return ratings.

If this is too much information to digest before it's time to make your first 401(k) contribution, don't despair: Put the entire contribution in an S&P 500 index fund, or other large-cap, blend fund, until you've had time to decide what allocation you're going to feel comfortable with and what individual funds you wish to select.top of page

I want to diversify my 401(k) investments but I am confused by the descriptions for the types of mutual fund choices I have. Could you explain: index funds, emerging growth, value, overseas, aggressive growth and bond funds?

You need to understand what an "index" is before you can understand what an "index fund" is.

  • Index: An "index" measures and reports the performance of a particular group of stocks. It's a benchmark, or bogey, for the group it represents. The benchmark for most mutual funds is the S&P 500.
  • S&P 500 index: This index measures the total change in market value of America's 500 most widely held public companies. The goal of most stock mutual funds is to beat the S&P 500. Over the long haul, hardly any of them do, so an S&P 500 index fund is a good place to put your large-cap investment dollars.
  • Index fund: An "index fund" buys the same stocks that make up a particular "index." Vanguard is the 800-pound gorilla of index fund investing. An index fund that mirrors the S&P 500 is a large-cap fund, holding a blend of growth and value stocks. Expect your investment in this type of fund to be boring, effortless and profitable. There are indexes to measure every segment of the investment market. To learn more, read "You'll need an index to do the job."

Emerging growth fund
An emerging growth fund buys stocks in companies in less-developed countries, such as Mexico, Malaysia, Chile, Jordan, the Philippines and Argentina. Because of the political and economic instability of the emerging markets, these funds are volatile and risky.

Overseas funds
Overseas funds buy stocks and bonds in foreign companies. Global funds have a mix of U.S. and foreign holdings.

Aggressive growth
Aggressive growth funds invest in companies whose sales and earnings are expected to soar in the future. These funds have periods of huge losses and periods of huge gains; you're betting that over time the gains will far outweigh the losses. You need a strong stomach and long time frame to invest in this type of fund.

Bond funds
Bond funds invest in bonds. A conservative fund invests in U.S. government bonds; an aggressive fund invests in high-yield or "junk bonds."

-- Posted: April 6, 2004



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