Americans are having a tough time saving for retirement, with many taking early withdrawals on accounts such as their 401(k)s or IRAs, according to a recent Bankrate survey.
Although income played a factor in taking early withdrawals, the results weren’t as stark as you might suspect. About 51 percent of households earning $30,000 to $49,999 annually had taken money early, while 50 percent of workers bringing in $50,000 to $79,999 did so. But of the highest-earning category surveyed ($80,000 and up), 44 percent said they’ve previously tapped their retirement money too.
The problem is that if you take an early withdrawal, the money can’t be redeposited into the account. Workers can’t make up the lost savings, and they lose the huge tax and retirement benefits of their plans, costing them thousands in lost gains, if not more.
On top of that, early withdrawals can cost you in taxes, often with an added penalty of 10 percent. Those are a lot of negatives, and while there may be times when an early withdrawal is truly your only option, you do have other ways to access cash when you need it.
Five ways to avoid tapping your retirement accounts
1. Get an emergency fund (starting today)
The best way to prevent having to take an early withdrawal is to prevent the situation from happening in the first place – by having an emergency fund for those especially tough times.
An emergency fund is the base of any financial plan. It’s your own personal safety net, so that when the unexpected happens, you have cash to rebound and meet those expenses. This money can be earmarked in a special account, and you can even stash it in a high-yield savings account so the money isn’t just sitting there in a low-yield checking account, as it often does.
An emergency fund is the best first step to make, and you can do it relatively easily with an online bank, opening an account with one of the highest yields in the country. Then consider depositing money regularly (even $10 a week) so the money will be there when you need it. Experts recommend keeping at least six months of expenses in your emergency fund.
[READ: How to start (and build) an emergency fund]
2. Tap a new credit card offer
This might be a less obvious avenue for accessing cash, but it is possible. If you have good credit, you may be able to open a new credit card with a special zero percent introductory offer.
You might be able to benefit in a couple different ways. First, many cards offer zero percent interest on purchases for a period of time, allowing you to either finance your emergency immediately or save the cash you otherwise would have spent and spend it instead on your immediate need.
Second, some cards allow you to immediately take out cash from the credit line and may offer you a low introductory rate, even zero percent, for a period of time. A cash advance will likely set you back a fee of 3 to 5 percent of the loan amount, however. In either scenario, you’ll still have to keep up with minimum monthly payments in order to not default on the balance.
Both these avenues could allow you to access cash quickly, but you’ll want to be sure that you can manage any payments that arise and preferably avoid carrying a balance when the card begins charging its regular interest rates, which could easily go above 20 percent.
[READ: Here are the best zero percent APR credit cards out there]
3. Access your community
Depending on what you need money for, you may be able to offset some of your need via your social network or other community resources. You may be able to lean on friends for financial or material support, for example.
Community resources such as food banks and charities can also offer assistance. And your religious organization or others may be able to provide food or other aid.
In the Bankrate survey, a third of respondents indicated that they had taken an early withdrawal because of unemployment. If that’s the main cause of your financial distress, be sure that you file for unemployment and collect any benefits that you’re eligible for. While it likely won’t fill the gap completely, it helps.
4. Get a home equity loan or HELOC
A home can be a great asset – you can’t live in a stock, after all – but it does come with some drawbacks, especially if you have a mortgage. A mortgage can limit your financial flexibility, for example, and owning a house can tie up your money, making it hard to access.
That’s where a home equity loan or a home equity line of credit (HELOC) come in. A home equity loan can give you a lump sum at one time, and often carries a lower rate. But you’ll be taking an installment loan and stuck with a monthly mortgage payment. Your home is the collateral for the loan, so be sure you can meet the payments or you’ll lose your residence.
In contrast, a HELOC can give you the ability to access the equity in your house almost like a credit card. With a HELOC, you can take out what you need whenever you need it, up to your approval limit. Again, the interest rates will tend to be better than what you’d see on a credit card.
To access either of these loans, you’ll need to have equity in your home, which means you’ll probably have been paying the mortgage on your home for a number of years first.
[READ: Here are the best rates on HELOCs]
5. A loan can be better than an early withdrawal
While an early withdrawal comes with a lot of downsides, you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k) that eliminates at least some of those negatives. Nevertheless, you should be very careful about taking a loan from your account, and many employers don’t offer the option.
If your plan allows you to borrow, it may have some stringent conditions. It may charge setup fees and other administration costs. And there are limits to how much you can borrow, per IRS rules. You won’t be able to access more than (1) the greater of $10,000 or 50 percent of your plan balance or (2) $50,000, whichever is less. So your maximum loan is $50,000 in all cases.
Repayments must be made at least quarterly on the loan. According to IRS rules, a loan must be repaid within five years, unless it’s a loan to buy a principal residence. And if you don’t repay the loan? It’s treated like an early distribution, with all the taxes and penalties that may accrue.
While the interest rate may be low, there are other reasons to avoid a 401(k) loan, if you can help it.
Many Americans with retirement plans take early withdrawals, but it’s usually best if you can avoid going this route. Of course, that isn’t always possible. One-third of the respondents to Bankrate’s survey indicated that unemployment led to an early withdrawal, while 26 percent indicated that medical expenses or other unplanned expenses forced their hand to tap their retirement funds.
But in other cases – such as a home purchase or higher education expenses, two other prominent responses in the survey – it’s possible to maintain your retirement accounts, fund those expenses with loans or delay non-essential purchases. As the old financial advice says, you can take out loans for your child’s education but not for your own retirement.
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