What You Should Know About 401(k) Loans

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If you are in a pinch and need money quickly, the idea of a 401(k) loan can be appealing. Instead of paying double-digit interest to a credit card company, you can pay interest to yourself, effectively contributing more money to your retirement plan.

Before you sign on that dotted line, though, here are some important things that every new investor should know about 401(k) loans.

The Positive Aspects of 401(k) Borrowing

While the whole point of a 401(k) is to put away money that you won't touch until retirement, taking a loan from your plan may be the best option you have under certain circumstances. A high-interest title loan, pawnshop, credit card cash advance, or even a more reasonable personal loan can still cost more than double the interest you'd pay on a 401(k) loan. If you know you'll have the means to repay the loan within, say, the next year, there are a few redeeming factors that make these loans sensible under certain scenarios, such as emergency medical expenses or a down payment on a home.

A 401k Loan:

  • Doesn't involve a credit check
  • Has an easy loan application process
  • Gives you quick access to money
  • Isn't reported to credit bureaus
  • Has interest repaid to your own account

The Downside of 401(k) Loans

Now that you understand the positive side of these loans, be aware that there are a few major catches. If you should ever need to declare bankruptcy, ordinarily, your retirement plan assets, such as a 401(k), 403(b), traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, and simple IRA are protected, like safe havens, or lockboxes, that creditors have a very hard time touching. If you raid your 401(k) to try and save your home, that money is available to creditors once it is taken out of the account in the form of an outright withdrawal or loan. 

If you lose your job or change employers, your entire 401(k) loan balance is due within 60 days. If you can't repay it, the IRS and your state treat the funds as a withdrawal. You will owe all federal and state income taxes on it, plus an additional 10 percent penalty tax if you are under the age of 59.5 years old. You'll be lucky to be left with 50 to 70 cents on the dollar, meaning you're going to get a huge tax bill at the very moment you find yourself without work.

Not All 401(k) Plans Let You Take a Loan

While the law allows companies to offer 401(k) loans in their plans, they are not required to do so. In fact, some employers vehemently oppose the entire idea of 401(k) loans because management or owners believe that retirement assets in these accounts should be as sacrosanct as pension assets—held beyond reach and out of the way of temptation. Additionally, some employer plans only permit 401(k) loans for specific purposes, such as buying a home or paying medical expenses. 

During the Great Recession of 2008–2009, a number of people lived beyond their means and unfortunately found themselves unable to make credit card debt payments or pay their mortgage.

Instead of declaring bankruptcy or going into foreclosure, they wanted to raid their 401(k) assets by either making an outright withdrawal, which would trigger regular income taxes plus a 10 percent penalty tax for those under the age of 59.5 years old, or taking a 401(k) loan. 

Not wanting to hand their money over to the IRS, most opted for the latter until they found out that their company plan didn't offer 401(k) loans for this very situation—to prevent people from mortgaging their future to pay for today.

The Maximum You Can Borrow

Even if you have millions of dollars in your retirement account, the biggest 401(k) loan you can take is equal to the lesser of 50% of your account balance or $50,000. There are no exceptions. If your family has a very high income, that isn't going to do you much good. 

The Interest Rate on Your Loan

When repaying money borrowed from your retirement plan, you must pay interest, which is typically the prime rate plus 1 or 2 percent. True, the interest is paid to yourself, meaning it is more of a transfer from one pocket to another than it is a real expense, but you still have to come up with the cash. Unfortunately, you don't control the interest rate—the plan sponsor does. 

The Repayment Period for 401(k) Loans

When you borrow from your 401(k) account, you have to repay the money, with interest, over 60 months. That five-year period can be extended for those who use the borrowed money to purchase a primary residence, though in most cases, a 401(k) loan isn't going to be nearly as attractive as a traditional mortgage loan from a local bank. 

Consider a 401(k) Loan Very Carefully

While the 401(k) plan can be a great way to save for retirement, building wealth through years of tax-advantaged compounding, removing money from the account early through a loan can really cost you, even if you intend to repay the funds. Review all of the pros and cons as they pertain to your specific situation and speak with your financial advisor before making your final decision.