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If you have a 401(k) plan at work and need some cash, you might be tempted to borrow or withdraw money from it. But keep in mind that the purpose of a 401(k) is to save for retirement. Take money out of it now, and you'll risk running out of money during retirement. You may also face stiff tax consequences and penalties for withdrawing money before age 59½. Still, if you're facing a financial emergency--for instance, your child's college tuition is almost due and your 401(k) is your only source of available funds--borrowing or withdrawing money from your 401(k) may be your only option.
To find out if you're allowed to borrow from your 401(k) plan and under what circumstances, check with your plan's administrator or read your summary plan description. Some employers allow 401(k) loans only in cases of financial hardship, but you may be able to borrow money to buy a car, to improve your home, or to use for other purposes.
Generally, obtaining a 401(k) loan is easy--there's little paperwork, and there's no credit check. The fees are limited too--you may be charged a small processing fee, but that's generally it.
No matter how much you have in your 401(k) plan, you probably won't be able to borrow the entire sum. Generally, you can't borrow more than $50,000 or one-half of your vested plan benefits, whichever is less. (An exception applies if your account value is less than $20,000; in this case, you may be able to borrow up to $10,000, even if this is your entire balance.)
Typically, you have to repay money you've borrowed from your 401(k) within five years by making regular payments of principal and interest at least quarterly, often through payroll deduction. However, if you use the funds to purchase a primary residence, you may have a much longer period of time to repay the loan.
Make sure you follow to the letter the repayment requirements for your loan. If you don't repay the loan as required, the money you borrowed will be considered a taxable distribution. If you're under age 59½, you'll owe a 10 percent federal penalty tax, as well as regular income tax on the outstanding loan balance (other than the portion that represents any after-tax or Roth contributions you've made to the plan).
Your 401(k) plan may have a provision that allows you to withdraw money from the plan while you're still employed if you can demonstrate "heavy and immediate" financial need and you have no other resources you can use to meet that need (e.g., you can't borrow from a commercial lender or from a retirement account and you have no other available savings). It's up to your employer to determine which financial needs qualify. Many employers allow hardship withdrawals only for the following reasons:
Note: You may also be allowed to withdraw funds to pay income tax and/or penalties on the hardship withdrawal itself, if these are due.
Your employer will generally require that you submit your request for a hardship withdrawal in writing.
Generally, you can't withdraw more than the total amount you've contributed to the plan, minus the amount of any previous hardship withdrawals you've made. In some cases, though, you may be able to withdraw the earnings on contributions you've made. Check with your plan administrator for more information on the rules that apply to withdrawals from your 401(k) plan.
The option to take a hardship withdrawal can come in very handy if you really need money and you have no other assets to draw on, and your plan does not allow loans (or if you can't afford to make loan payments).