Trent Charlton knew the risks when he borrowed $10,000 from his 401(k) and cut his retirement savings in half.
But Charlton, a 40-year-old account executive at an Irvine, Calif., trucking company, said he had little choice because he and his wife could not keep up with monthly expenses after American Express reduced the limits on three credit cards.
As home prices fall and banks tighten lending standards, more people are doing the same thing: raiding their retirement savings just to get by and spending their nest eggs to gas up SUVs, pay mortgages or put food on the table.
But dipping into 401(k) accounts can carry risks because defaulted loans and hardship withdrawals are taxed as income and are subject to a 10 percent penalty if the worker is under 59 1/2 years old. That means if the trend grows, many Americans will risk coming up short on retirement savings or may have to rely on an overburdened Social Security system.
Some of the nation’s largest retirement plan administrators, such as Great-West Retirement Services and Fidelity Investments, are seeing double-digit spikes in hardship withdrawals and increases in loan requests, a sharp departure from levels that traditionally varied little.
Consumers who tap their retirement accounts can take a loan from their 401(k) accounts worth up to $50,000, or 50 percent of the amount invested, whichever is less. There are no tax consequences for a loan in good standing. But if a borrower defaults, the loan is considered a withdrawal and subject to the same tax penalties.
Based on current savings rates, The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that 43 percent of households risk not being able to fund the same standard of living during retirement as they have in their working years. That percentage increases to 49 percent for Americans between 36 and 43 whose main retirement plans are 401(k) accounts, not employer-funded pension plans like older generations.
Some plans don’t allow workers to make contributions while making payments on loans. Others require workers to wait a set time before contributing again after taking a withdrawal. If the employer matches contributions, workers are taking a double hit.
In the last three decades, 401(k)s have replaced traditional pension plans as employers’ preferred retirement offering, which has shifted the responsibility of saving to employees from employers. Only 32 percent of workers ages 36 to 43 have any coverage by a pension plan.
But for Americans who are struggling to keep afloat in a slumping economy, today’s money problems are more urgent than a far-off retirement date.
The Associated Press
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