Don’t take loans from your tax-deferred accounts

It sounds too good to be true. Why borrow from a bank when you can take a loan out from your 401(k) or 403(b) and pay yourself back in both interest and principal? If that sounds like a great deal, it’s not.

Money purchase plans, profit-sharing plans, 457(b) plans and both 401(k) and 403(b) plans may offer loans, but IRAs, SEP IRAs, and SIMPLE IRAs do not. The IRS does have some restrictions on the borrowing. It limits how much you can borrow at any one time. In general, you are limited to the smaller of 50% of your vested account balance, or $50,000. However, there is one exception (hardship) that allows you to borrow up to $10,000 even if it exceeds 50% of the balance. It also requires you to pay yourself a reasonable rate of interest on your loan. Generally, you have five years to repay the loan, although you are required to pay at least quarterly payments.

Recently a Thirty-something-year-old client told me he had taken out a $7,000 loan from his $50,000 403 (b) tax-deferred retirement plan years ago. He was surprised to find that it was not an interest-free loan and that he was required to pay off the loan in its entirety before he could draw from the account in retirement. What’s worse, if he quit his job, his company required that he pay off the amount in 60 days. He thought it was the IRS that laid down the rule provisions, but that is not the case.

It is the company you work for that offers the plan Some companies won’t let you borrow. Others have limitations on how much and how much you can borrow and how much you pay in interest. What happens if you fail to repay the loan? The IRS will consider the loan a distribution from your plan. You will then need to pay income tax on the amount, plus a 10% penalty if you are not age 59 ½ or older.

There are only a few cases where borrowing from you tax-deferred account makes economic sense: If you have an immediate emergency, say a medical issue, that cannot be financed any other way, an immediate cash obligation and your credit score prevents you from borrowing in any other way, or an extremely high interest debt that is threatening to send you into bankruptcy, or worse, may require you to take out a loan.

Nearly 3 out of 10 Americans borrow from their retirement plans. The problem is that they erroneously view them as their own personal piggy bank, until something goes wrong. If you lose your job, for example, you not only have no income coming in, but the loan is due in 2-3 months. If you can’t pay it back, you get slapped with additional taxes (as a distribution), which, unless you have a new job lined up, has to be paid out of whatever you have in your checking account.

Since these loans are paid back with your after-tax dollars, you end up paying taxes on the money twice. Once, out of your paycheck, to repay the loan and a second time, when you start withdrawing money in retirement.

Finally, these plans were established to provide you a winning combination of tax breaks, company matches, and the compounding of gains from your contributions, so that you can save for retirement. None of that occurs while you have a loan outstanding. Instead of a contribution each quarter, the loan repayment is taken out of your paycheck each quarter. If you take the full five years to repay the loan, not only are you missing out on five years of savings and compounding, but also the opportunity costs that the markets provide you.

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