Is tapping into your retirement savings a good option to get you through a financial crunch? The short answer is...no. Although it is your money, the tax consequences and impact to your long-term savings are very serious. If your need is so pressing that no other option will suffice, proceed with caution and know the rules.
The Loan: A loan from your 401(k) allows you to borrow against your savings. The loan must be repaid - with interest! - usually within five years. But, if you lose your job or leave the company and still have an outstanding loan, you are required to pay it back (typically) within one to two months. Failure to repay the loan accordingly is considered a default and the outstanding loan amount is fully taxable. Other restrictions may apply so be sure to talk with your 401(k) administrator before making this choice.
The Hardship Withdrawal: This option provides you with access to your savings under certain financial conditions, i.e. circumstances that present an immediate and severe need. Examples of hardships include medical care, the purchase of a principal residence, tuition payments, to prevent eviction or foreclosure, and funeral expenses. The two biggest drawbacks? You are permanently reducing your retirement savings and the withdrawal is treated as taxable income. Also, if you take the withdrawal prior to your age 59 ½, there is a 10% penalty added to the withdrawal amount.
If you are changing jobs or kissing the work world good-bye, your retirement accounts need special attention. To make your transition easier, keep in mind the following three options for managing your 401(k) or other qualified plans:
1. Leave the money in your current plan.
2. Withdraw the money in a lump sum. As mentioned above, withdrawals are not recommended because they are fully taxable, and if you are under age 59 ½, there is an additional 10% penalty applied to the withdrawal amount.
3. Rollover the money into an IRA or new employer's plan. Moving your money allows you to maintain control over your investment options. And, if you have changed jobs before, it allows you to consolidate multiple accounts. You can avoid paying taxes and penalties if you transfer the assets directly to the new custodian as a trustee-to-trustee transfer. One caveat to consider - if you own company stock in your plan, you may want to review an additional option before you initiate the rollover of that stock. Distributions of company stock from a qualified plan are eligible for favorable tax treatment. A calculation of potential Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) will help you determine what's right for your situation.