There are plenty of reasons to avoid taking money out of your retirement savings before you retire.
“These are emotional times and it can be tempting to take funds from a retirement plan to pay for current expenses,” says Allison Brecher , General Counsel at Vestwell in New York City. “Participants closer to retirement age should presumably already be invested in conservative options that are not as susceptible to market fluctuations. Younger participants who have a longer time horizon before retirement may be better served by remembering ‘don’t touch your face OR your 401(k).’”
Sometimes, though, you don’t have a choice. How do you know the difference? Here are some guidelines you can follow to determine if it’s in your best interest to take a premature distribution from your 401(k) or IRA.
#1: Reduce Unnecessary Expenses
Taking money out of your retirement nest egg, even with the penalties removed, is not a matter to take lightly. You don’t want to satisfy a short-term need in exchange for damaging your own long-term best interests. Do you really need it? Do you really need it now?
“Before making a withdrawal, ask yourself if the expenses you’ll cover with the funds are both immediate and essential,” says Christy Bieber, a financial writer with The Ascent based in Lutz, Florida. “If you can put off the expense or find another way to cover it, don’t raid your retirement accounts and jeopardize your future financial security.”
In reviewing items to cut, you needn’t limit yourself to reviewing discretionary expenses only. Given the extraordinary circumstances, you may have more latitude than you expect with regard to non-discretionary items.
“Take advantage of moratoriums on mortgage, student or other debt to reduce spending levels during period of quarantine or work furlough,” says Frank Corrado Managing Director/Kevin Talty, CFP®, EA, Vice President Robertson Stephens Wealth Management, LLC in Holmdel, New Jersey.
#2: Use Other Funds First
They don’t call them “rainy day funds” without reason. Should your financial skies appear quite stormy right now, it’s time to dip into those savings you’ve been stashing away for a day just like today.
“If you happen to have enough emergency cash though, use that first,” says Jennifer Kem, CEO and Founder of Master Brand Institute in San Francisco. “Don’t touch your future money unless absolutely necessary.”
You may have rainy day cash even if you don’t know it. It needn’t be labeled as such. It could be anything from that old piggy bank to a bank account that has been accumulating direct deposit payments. No matter their source, after you’ve located these emergency funds, you need to consume them with discipline (see Item #1 above).
“Once you consider using other liquid cash resources such as checking, savings, and emergency funds, construct a monthly budget to abide by during these times,” says John Knisley, Financial Planner for Tompkins Financial Advisors in Ithaca, New York. “This helps track monthly spending habits and determining whether the expenses are essential or non-essential.”
#3: Adjust Savings
Here’s a guideline you probably haven’t thought of. Why? Because it’s counterintuitive. It goes against everything every financial advisor tells you.
Yes, you read that right. If you’re too disciplined, you may not feel comfortable doing this. Right now, however, it’s more important to put food on your table than contribute to your retirement account. You can always catch up with your savings later. You can’t if you starve yourself.
“As much as we emphasize save till it hurts then save more, if you’ve eliminated all unnecessary expenses and still can’t make rent, it might make sense to temporarily reduce payments to IRAs, 401(k)s, HSAs, excess debt paydowns, etc.,” says James T. Meredith, Senior Vice President & Financial Advisor at Hefren-Tillotson, Inc. in Pittsburgh.
As you progress through these guidelines, you’ll notice things getting a bit more complicated. This guideline will appeal to you especially if you’re well versed in the power of leverage. If, on the other hand, you thought cutting back on saving was counterintuitive, your head will spin on this one.
Take on more debt.
“Individuals should explore all other alternatives, including borrowing from another source, before resorting to an early retirement plan distribution,” says Michael Pappachristou, Wealth Advisor at RegentAtlantic in New York City.
You’re in a much better position if you own a home. You may still have some principal to pay on your mortgage, but you may be surprised what the current interest rate environment offers.
“Consider applying for refinancing your home while rates are very low,” says Kevin Couper, Senior Vice President at Wealthspire Advisors in Aliso Viejo, California.
“What?” would be your natural response. “How can I take on more debt when I’m having trouble with cash flow now?”
Like temporarily stopping your retirement plan contributions, borrowing can provide a short-term fix that can then be addressed at a later date when you’re again flush with funds. Refinancing may provide you with a much larger infusion of cash for relatively little additional impact on your monthly payment.
“Other sources of short-term cash flow, like low-interest home equity lines of credit, can help minimize the longer-term investment and retirement risk,” says Jakob Loescher, a financial advisor at Savant Capital Management in Rockford, Illinois.
#5: Borrow from yourself
If you’re concerned about borrowing from others, borrow from yourself. Why withdraw from your 401(k) plan when you can take a loan? Take advantage of COVID-19 relief laws and avoid relying on the bank’s loan department.
“Taxpayers may consider taking a loan rather than a distribution from their retirement plans where permissible,” says Robbin E. Caruso, CPA, CGMA Partner, Prager Metis CPAs, LLC in Cranbury, New Jersey. “The CARES Act provides that such loan due dates that occur between the date of the enactment of the CARES Act and December 31, 2020, will be delayed for one (1) year.”
This isn’t without some risk. Caruso says, “If you’re taking a 401(k) loan, make a plan to repay within the loan parameters. If you lose your job or do not repay the loan, you could be facing a 10% withdrawal penalty AND a taxable event.”
Final Thought: The Nuclear Option
If, after reviewing these guidelines, you may still determine you have no choice but to take a premature distribution from your retirement savings.
You may, however, have one remaining option.
“If you’re unable to make budget adjustments and/or receive enough hardship assistance from your creditors, it’s worth seeking legal advice about the implications of bankruptcy protection before putting your retirement on the chopping block,” says Thomas Nitzsche, Manager of Media and Brand for Money Management International in Sugar Land, Texas. “Retirement accounts are generally sheltered from bankruptcy, meaning you retain them as long as you keep the funds in the accounts. If your new financial situation can’t sustain your lifestyle, you may just be putting a Band-Aid on it or kicking the can down the road by taking funds out.”
This may seem extreme, but the alternative can lead to far more harmful consequences.
“Withdrawing from your retirement funds prematurely can dramatically reduce your long-term growth in retirement,” says Amin Dabit, Vice President of Advisory Service at Personal Capital in Denver. “The most important guideline to remember when thinking about your long-term financial interests is to think about your retirement assets as a last resort.”