A Quarter Of Americans Are Taking Money From Their 401k To Stay Afloat. Are You?

With the unemployment rate hovering between 7.8-10% for the past few years, and actual unemployment figures probably being much higher than that, a lot of people are hurting financially these days.

We all probably know a family that is struggling these days with a long term unemployed father and mother, unemployment assistance running out and credit card bills starting to pile up.

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With all of the economic problems more and more people are having to take measures that they’d prefer not to, including taking money from their retirement accounts. Instead of preparing for their future they’re having to pay for today.

A Quarter Of Americans Dipping Into Their 401k

how to avoid withdrawing from your 401kWith people hurting financially across the U.S., just how many people are taking the extraordinary measures of raiding their retirement accounts?  According to the Arizona Star, almost 1/4 of Americans are depleting their retirement accounts.

More than 25 percent of Americans are dipping into 401(k) retirement accounts to pay bills, according to a recent report.

U.S. workers are tapping into nearly a quarter of the $293 billion placed into their retirement savings each year to pay for mortgages, credit cards and other debts, according to a report from financial advisory firm HelloWallet. Those in their 40s are the most frequent raiders, with about one-third using their 401(k)s to pay current bills.

So according to a report from HelloWallet more than 25% of Americans are having to take money away from their 401(k)s.  Even more of those in their 40s are having to take those measures with about 1/3 of 40-somethings taking money from their 401(k) to pay their bills. That’s a lot of people!

Other studies have shown similar results.

Other studies bear out those results. Vanguard, an investment-management group, said American workers withdrawing money from 401(k)s or taking out loans against their accounts jumped 12 percent since 2008.

 A Shaky Foundation For Future Retirees

With so many people draining their retirement accounts and negating any future gains, a lot of people are going to have issues not just now, but down the road.

Draining funds that ensure security when workers retire has raised new worries about the shaky foundation for older Americans.

Many workers use loans that incur large penalties to dip into retirement accounts. In addition to paying income taxes, many are hit with a 10 percent tax penalty.

Matt Fellowes, chief executive of HelloWallet, said there are few winners in that situation.

“What you have is 401(k) participants voting with their wallets, saying they would much rather use their money for other purposes,” Fellowes told the Washington Post. “I don’t think this can be ignored. Employers are dramatically overpaying for retirement, but it is not benefiting the employee.”

Not only are people going to have to worry about paying penalties now for withdrawing money early, they’ll also have to pay taxes on the money.  Any gains in their investments that they may have seen will also be short circuited as the power of compounding interest is cut off at the knees.

What Are You Doing To Ensure Your Retirement Account Is Safe?

Millions of people are in the midst of draining their retirement accounts and watching their savings dwindle away.  So what can you do to do your best to avoid seeing the same happen to you?

Not everyone can completely avoid this situation as job losses and tough job markets are a reality these days.  The best you can do is to try and plan ahead for a rainy day so that when the worst happens, you’ll be ready for it. What are some things you can do?

  •  Save a LARGE emergency fund:  One thing that can help to tide you over in the midst of a layoff is having a large emergency fund.  For  us that means having 8-12 months of expenses saved away for a rainy day. We currently keep that savings in accounts at Ally Bank and Capital One 360.
  • Do a family budget to keep more of what you earn: Start doing a family budget using a software like Mint.com, or YNAB.  Once you start tracking where the money is going, you’ll be able to cut back on wasted expenditures.
  • Find ways to cut back: Find ways to cut back on your regular monthly bills as well as on extra spending.  Put the extra money towards the emergency fund and retirement saving.
  • Find ways to start making income on the side: Find ways to make money on the side so that if you do lose your day job, you’ll have something to fall back on. For me my fall back position is the income from this blog, from my graphic design sidelight and from a variety of other sources. Get creative and diversify your income!
  • Start a Roth IRA: Think about investing in a Roth IRA at a company like Betterment since you can withdraw your contributions from the Roth at any time with no penalties, in case the worst does happen.  You then won’t be subject to extra penalties of withdrawing from your 401(k). Penalties do still apply for withdrawing earnings, however.

These things are just a start. The key is to get your finances in order, to start saving up a large emergency fund, and plan for as many contingencies as you can.

Your turn: Have your own ways that you’re planning ahead so that you don’t have to withdraw from your 401(k) before the time comes? Tell us here!

Last Edited: 18th March 2013

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    Share Your Thoughts:

  1. says

    I would love to have an 8-12 month emergency fund and I think that if everyone had that large of a rainy day fund there would be less dipping into the 401k. For the most part, though, I think the percentage of people who have that sort of money in savings for a rainy day is relatively small. I guess the only bright spot in this story is that people have somewhere to go when they really need the cash, even if it is their retirement money.

    • says

      I agree that not that many people save up that much cash for a rainy day, but if you’re able to, it’s a great safety net to be able to fall back on.

      True, it’s good that people at least have that to fall back on, but I can’t imagine the money would last long. I wonder how many of those people really need to dip into the 401k, or are just doing it to be able to maintain their lifestyle and avoid possibly getting a part time job? It’d be interesting to see some deeper figures on this.

  2. says

    I built my finance around having only one income. If me or my wife loses our jobs, we can still make all of our obligations. The bonus side of setting up our finances that way, is has allowed us to build a 12 month emergency fund, in addition to funding our retirement accounts.

    I would get a second part time job before I dipped into my 401k. It’s not just the taxes, it’s the 10% penalty on early withdrawal that would hold my feet to the fire, and force me to figure out a different way.

    • says

      I’ve built my finances the same way, they’re based off of one income only, so that when my wife ended up staying home with our son it wasn’t a huge loss, we’d already been living on my income alone. We had also built up a big emergency fund by the time our son was born, so we were all set to go. Having the blog income was just gravy and allowed us to basically continue doing what we were before. I can’t imagine dipping into my 401k either because of the taxes and penalties. Why waste that hard earned money if you don’t have to?

      • says

        I also cap my Roth IRA every year. If I have a devastating year, that chews through my carefully laid back up plans, it is still more flexible than pulling money from my 401k. That is my emergency fund to my emergency fund haha!

  3. says

    Though not surprising, those numbers are still scary. There are so many reasons to not be dipping in to that 401k and is, generally, incredibly short sighted. We have a solid E-Fund and cut back as much as we can so our money goes farther. I can’t see any point in time that I could rationalize taking from my retirement in order to take care of something now.

  4. says

    Wow, that’s a lot of people taking money they shouldn’t. But for some of us, it’s hard to pay bills, save for rainy days, save for retirement, pay for college, well, you get the idea. I’m not making excuses, but in the 10 years at my current job my bills have gone up MUCH more than my salary has gone up. So it is tempting to borrow from my 401k. Especially when I look at all my savings and see retirement as almost impossible. Does that make borrowing from a 401k a good idea? No. But I understand why it is so tempting.

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