Planning matters

Think Before Tapping 401(k) as Emergency Fund

Do you need a quick infusion of cash?

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, you may be able to take money out of a qualified plan, like a 401(k), or an IRA, with favorable tax consequences. But should you do it? Let’s take a look…

Background

Among other changes in the CARES Act relating to qualified plans and IRAs, a participant can withdraw up to $100,000 of funds without paying the usual IRS 10% tax penalty on most distributions before age 59½. Plus, you can take as long as three years to pay the resulting tax bill, spread out evenly over the three years. If you repay the full amount within three years, you owe no tax.

To qualify for this exemption, you or your spouse must be diagnosed with COVID-19 or experience adverse financial consequences due to the virus such as being laid off, having work hours reduced or being quarantined or furloughed.

What are the pitfalls?

There are several reasons why you may want to avoid taking money out of your retirement accounts unless it’s an absolute emergency such as:

You’re diluting your retirement savings. Although the money comes in handy now, you’re chipping away at your nest egg and forfeiting growth potential. For example, if you withdraw the maximum amount of $100,000 that would have earned 6% annually tax-deferred for ten years, the value would have been $179,000.

It may be bad timing. Experts say it is difficult to time the markets in the current volatile environment. If you sell some holdings right now, you may be locking in losses that would miss the recovery in the next few months or years.

You still owe federal income tax. Income tax is due unless you replace the full amount within three years. Also, depending on your situation, it could move you into a higher income bracket and you could end up paying tax at higher rates than you would in your retirement years.

Better options might exist. Arranging a hardship loan from your 401(k) might be a better alternative for your situation. You avoid the taxable event of the withdrawal and you pay back yourself with interest. However, if that loan is not repaid prior to leaving employment the loan may be considered a distribution and subject to income taxes and penalties. Other options to consider include refinancing a mortgage with lower interest rates, taking advantage of payment relief from mortgage, rent or student loan payments or deferred credit card billing.

While it is an option, retirement plan withdrawals are not always the best choice. Think through all scenarios before withdrawing from retirement funds to cover emergency expenses.

This material is intended to provide general financial education and is not written or intended as tax or legal advice and may not be relied upon for purposes of avoiding any Federal tax penalties.  Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.