Dear Liz: I have almost $250,000 in my retirement accounts. I also have almost $50,000 in credit card debt. Should I take $50,000 from my 401(k) to pay off the debt?
Answer: No, no, no.
In case that wasn’t clear: No.
Of all the dumb financial moves you can make, raiding retirement funds to pay off credit card debt ranks near the top. You’ll pay penalties and taxes that typically equal one-quarter to one-half of any withdrawal, plus you lose the future tax-deferred returns that money could make. If you’re 30 years from retirement, that $50,000 withdrawal would cost you $500,000 in lost retirement income, assuming an 8% average annual return.
The fact that you have that much debt puts you at high risk of bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, your unsecured debt can be wiped out or reduced, while your retirement funds would be protected from creditors.
If you can’t figure a way to pay off your debt without raiding your retirement, you need to make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and another with a bankruptcy attorney.