Should you borrow money from your retirement plan?

A 401k Loan to Pay Off Debts

by Gary Foreman

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I need some advice. My credit card debt is becoming a problem. Ever since they cut my hours at work, I've only been able to pay the minimum. My balance is $9,700. It's been growing a little each month. I'm thinking of making a withdrawal from my 401k to pay off the credit cards. I'd do it except for the penalties and the fact that I just turned 40, so I'm starting to think about retirement. What should I do?

This is a good question and one that's frequently asked. With the economic recovery lagging, many of us have gone five years without a raise or even suffered reduced hours.

Money that we've stashed away in a 401k plan looks tempting, especially when we're struggling to make the minimum payments. Let's see if we can help you decide whether to raid that 401k to pay off your credit card debts.

Let's begin by seeing what happens if you pull the money out of your 401k and use it to pay off credit card balances.

Any money that you take out will be subject to ordinary income tax. For illustration, we'll assume that you're in the 25% tax bracket (income from $36,251 to $87,850 for single filers).

And, unless you qualify for a hardship exception, you'll also pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

It's unlikely that you'd qualify for a hardship. According to the IRS, a hardship is defined as: "Certain expenses are deemed to be immediate and heavy, including: (1) certain medical expenses; (2) costs relating to the purchase of a principal residence; (3) tuition and related educational fees and expenses; (4) payments necessary to prevent eviction from, or foreclosure on your residence.

So it's probably true that you'll lose 35% of any money withdrawn to the IRS. We'll also assume that you want to end up with $10,000 (the math is much easier to illustrate).

The formula to determine what to withdraw is the amount of money you want ($10,000) divided by the percentage of the withdrawal you get to keep (in this case 1 minus 35% = 65%). So $10,000 divided by .65 = $15,385. You'll need to take out over $15,000 from your 401k to pay off the cards.

If you do that, the benefits are clear. You won't have that credit card balance haunting you each month, but the costs are harder to see.

That's because you won't face the costs until you retire. To illustrate, we'll assume that you were able to earn 5% on that money if you left it in the 401k. At that rate, the money would double every 14 years. So by the time you retire in your late 60s, it would have doubled two times and would be worth about $60,000.

Use these guidelines to choose the best plan to pay off your credit card balances.

Most retirement experts say that you can safely take about 3% of your principal each year in retirement. So that $60k would be about $1800 per year or $150 a month for the rest of your life and still leave the original $60k as an inheritance for your kids.

Let's try looking at a different option. Suppose that instead of taking a withdrawal you choose to borrow from your 401k. Because it's a loan and not a withdrawal, you won't pay taxes on it.

Expert Interview: How a 401k Loan Affects Future Wealth

There will be an interest rate applied to the loan. Check with your plan administrator to find out what the interest rate will be.

For our purposes, let's say it's the same 5% that you would have earned had the money been invested elsewhere. As long as that's the case, the amount of money available when you retire will be the same.

But it is possible that today's monthly debt payments will be lower. Your HR department will be able to tell you what your new payment will be. You can compare that to your current credit card payments.

However, those lower payments don't come without a risk. Generally you need to repay the whole 401k loan amount if you leave your job, so you're stuck in your job until the loan is repaid. And, a layoff could be a real problem.

calculator iconCalculator: Should I borrow from my 401(k) plan?

Another possibility would be to check out non-profit credit counseling. If you qualify, they can get a reduced interest rate and a lower payment for you. We recommend a few in the TDS Get Out of Debt Course.

A final option would be to find a way to make up for the lost hours via a part-time job. Use the money to pay down your debts.

Ultimately that might be the best option. If your expenses regularly exceed your income, you'll continue to have a debt problem. Even if you wipe the slate clean today, you'll only start building a new balance next month. Soon you'll be back where you are now.

Reviewed May 2017

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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