Several years and two home states ago, I recall one of my co-workers telling me about how she was able to borrow from her 401(k) in order to buy a new car (or at least put a down payment on one). She went on and on about how low the interest rate was and, ultimately, how happy she was with her decision. This seemingly good advice stuck with me to the point that, some time later, I decided to give it shot in order to help fund my dream vacation to Tokyo.
While I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that this move isn’t always as great as it sounds. In fact, borrowing from yourself can actually get to be quite expensive.
The good aspects of taking out a 401(k) loan
On the surface, temporarily taking money out of your retirement account makes a lot of sense. After all, many of us won’t be retiring for a good long time, so what’s the harm in taking advantage of some of the funds now? Furthermore, if you pay the money back in a timely manner, there are no tax consequences to 401(k) loans, in sharp contrast to the penalties you will incur if you take out money directly.
Another reason these loans are so attractive is that they come at relatively low interest rates. For that reason, it may make more financial sense to borrow your own money as opposed to utilizing credit cards or personal loans that are transparently costlier. Because of these considerations, 401(k) loans can make financial sense and could even be the best option depending on your specific situation. However, there is more to be aware of.
The rest of the 401(k) loan story
If you compare just the interest rate, borrowing from your 401(k) can seem like a steal. Unfortunately, what you could be stealing from is your future. What’s most borrowers do not account for is how the rate of return on your retirement account will be affected by the absent money. By removing a large chunk of your 401(k) funds, you’re hurting your growth potential. With some accounts earning between 5% and 8% annually, that could really add up — especially if you take a while to pay back your loan.
One more thing to keep in mind: if you fail to repay your loan on time, you’ll not only have to pay taxes on the amount you took out but will also have to pony up a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Similarly, if you leave the employer that hosts your 401(k), you will need to either pay the loan balance back immediately or suffer the withdrawal consequences. For those reasons, if you’re thinking about switching jobs, you may want to look elsewhere for your loan.
So, is it a good idea?
Honestly, it depends. If your current job is secure and you only plan on borrowing a small amount for a short period of time, there may not be much harm in a 401(k) loan. However, cases in which you’re borrowing for longer or instances in which you’re mulling a change of career might not lend themselves well to this option.
Of course, another big factor is what you’ll be spending the money on. There are plenty of great ways to invest in yourself that might prove more important to you than the potential financial ramifications. To that point, there are definitely worse ways of gaining cash or capital than borrowing it from yourself.
If you’re thinking about borrowing from your 401(k), the best thing you can do is research all of your options first. Just be sure to consider the long-term impact even a short-term loan could have and don’t jeopardize your retirement for things you need (or, worse yet, only “need”) today.
Featured photo credit: TaxCredits.net via flickr.com