What to Do If You Simply Can’t Avoid Taking Money From Your 401(k)

401k withdrawal penalty
wuratyavuz/Getty Images

Forgive me Suze Orman, for I have sinned. I withdrew money early from my 401(k).

Oh, it’s not like I wanted to. It’s not like I didn’t explore other options first. It’s not like I used it for something fun like a vacation or a new gourmet kitchen.

Nope. My husband took an exciting job in another state, and with two kids ensconced in high school, we didn’t feel it was the right time to uproot our whole family. So after years of supporting two households, we were drowning in credit card debt. In desperation mode, I cashed out some of my 401(k) to pay down the balances on high-interest cards.

And it seems I’m not the only one.

According to financial website HelloWallet, more than 25% of American households that use a 401(k) or similar plan have withdrawn or borrowed money from their retirement plans for non-retirement spending; over 50% used it to pay off loans, bills and debt.

Overall, those withdrawals add up to a whopping $70 billion annually.

“In effect,” says Stephen P. Utkus, director of retirement research at Vanguard, “[retirement plans] have become dual-purpose systems for retirement and short-term consumption needs.”

Yeah, I got slammed with a 10% penalty, and I’ll have to pay taxes on the withdrawal next April. But for us, saving money for our future wasn’t really an option while we were struggling to pay our bills. Besides, my credit cards were charging more in interest than my plans were yielding.

While I wasn’t able to avoid a penalty, perhaps you can. Here are three penalty-free ways to dip into your retirement plan early.

1. Pick Your Poison Carefully

If you have a Roth IRA that’s at least 5 years old, consider dipping into that before your 401(k).

You can make an early withdrawal from your Roth IRA contributions at any time, for any reason. Because the money is taxed before it’s deposited, you won’t get hit with taxes if you’re only withdrawing what you put in.

If you decide to take out more money than just your contribution amount, the IRS may waive your taxes and penalties if the funds are used for things like helping you buy your first home or pay for college.

2. Consider a Loan Rather Than a Withdrawal

You can borrow up to 50%, or $50,000, of your account balance from your employer-sponsored 401(k) penalty-free (and sometimes tax-free), but certain conditions apply.

  • In general, the loan has to be repaid within five years (longer if you’re buying a house with the money), and interest is applied. Payments can be made through paycheck deductions.
  • You can only withdraw your contributions to the plan; you can’t withdraw your employer’s match.
  • If you leave your job and haven’t fully repaid the loan, you will have a limited time to pony up the balance or take it as distribution. (Read that as you will incur taxes and penalties.)
  • You’ll pay taxes, times two. Assuming the loan amount gets used up paying an expense(s), when you start to repay the money you’ll be doing so with taxed dollars, notes Mary Erl, a financial planner for Nest Builder Financial Advisers in Gurnee, Illinois. “And when you take the money out of the 401(k) [at retirement] it is taxed again, so you’re getting taxed twice.”

3. Do Your Research

Hey, Uncle Sam has a heart — even if it might be two sizes too small. Depending on the type of retirement account you have and your reason for accessing it, you may qualify for a penalty-free withdrawal. For instance:

  • You have insane medical bills. The government will waive the penalty if your unreimbursed medical expenses are more than 10% of your gross income.
  • You’re disabled. And we’re not talking a broken leg here. You must be permanently and totally disabled.
  • You’ve been unemployed for 12 or more weeks, and you’re using the money to pay health insurance premiums.
  • You’re buying a home. You can only avoid the penalty if you use a withdrawal from an IRA for this purpose. But be aware that there is a $10,000 lifetime limit.
  • You need to pay college costs for yourself, your kids, even your grandkids. When you need dinero to pay for a diploma, an IRA is the way to go. Use your 401(k) and you’ll get charged a penalty.
  • You’re not working. If you leave your job — because you got fired, you retired or you quit — and you’re 55 or older, you can withdraw from your 401(k) without a penalty.

Jeff Rose, a certified financial planner who runs Goodfinancialcents.com, explains how his father-in-law withdrew money from his 401(k) early when his company went through a buyout and he was offered an early retirement package at age 55.

“We ended up taking a distribution from his 401(k) to have some cash on hand and then rolled the rest into his IRA,” Rose said.

No matter how serious your financial situation, withdrawing early from your retirement account should never be your first (or second or third) option. The penalties, taxes and loss of growth are good reasons to first think about getting a low-interest personal or home equity loan.

You can also work with your credit card companies to lower interest rates if consumer debt is your undoing. Another no-brainer: Stop making contributions to your 401(k), and instead, sock the money away in an emergency fund.

The bottom line: Your retirement plan isn’t a piggy bank. And the more money you take out now, the less money will be compounding for your future.

But if taking from your retirement fund is your only way out of a financial jam, don’t be afraid to take the plunge. If you’re smart about how and when you do it (a financial planner can help), you’ll minimize or even avoid the damage and emerge in even better shape to save for your future.

Disclaimer: This article contains general information and explains options you may have, but it is not intended to be investment advice or a personal recommendation. We can’t personalize articles for our readers, so your situation may vary from the one discussed here. Please seek a licensed professional for tax advice, legal advice, financial planning advice or investment advice.

Donna Christiano Campisano is a freelance writer who sleeps better at night now that she isn’t facing financial oblivion.