401(k) loans can get really expensive

Dear Liz: I bought my condo in 2009. I took out a loan on my 401(k) account to use for the down payment. I left my job in early 2012, and at the time didn’t have the money to pay back the loan, so the balance was treated as a distribution. I now owe the IRS $10,000 and don’t have the money to pay them, nor can I afford monthly payments beyond about $50. I can’t borrow any money from a family member or friend. My tax guy suggested (another) 401(k) loan, but I’m really reluctant to go deeper into debt. Any suggestions?

Answer: Thank you for providing a vivid example of why people should think twice before dipping into retirement funds to buy a house. Not only are you facing a steep tax bill, but the money you withdrew can’t be restored to your account, so you’re losing all the tax-deferred gains that cash could have earned over the coming decades. You can figure that every $10,000 withdrawn costs you at least $100,000 in lost future retirement funds, assuming an 8% average annual return on investment over 30 years. If you’re 40 years from retirement, the toll can be twice as large.

So it would be good, if at all possible, to leave your retirement funds alone from now on. That means you need to come up with the cash to pay what you owe, and $50 a month doesn’t cut it. To use an IRS payment plan, you’ll need to come up with about $140 a month to pay your bill off within the required 72 months.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to trim your spending so you can free up more money to pay this bill. These ways include, but aren’t limited to: ending your pay TV subscription, preparing meals at home instead of eating out, trading your smartphone for a dumber one or at least switching to a prepaid plan, selling or storing your car and using public transportation, or selling your condo and moving to a cheaper place.

When people have virtually no discretionary income left after paying bills, and they’re employed, the culprits are often their housing or transportation costs, or both. Reducing these can be painful but may be necessary if you want to get on more solid financial footing.

Don’t use your 401(k) to pay debt

Dear Liz: I will be 61 in December. I have $15,000 in credit card debt at 9.9% and $41,000 in a certificate of deposit earning 3% per year. I have $590,000 in my 401(k) account. I want to pay off the credit card balance to redirect my income to paying off my $26,000 mortgage by the end of 2013. Which near-term option for paying off the credit card is better: close the CD and buy a new, lower-paying CD with the balance after paying the card off, or take a 401(k) distribution, leaving the $41,000 emergency fund untouched?

Answer: Since you’re older than 591/2, you would not have to pay penalties on any withdrawal from your 401(k). But a withdrawal would still be a bad idea for a number of reasons.

The most obvious is that you would have to pay taxes on any amount you take out. Typically 20% is withheld from any distribution, but your bill could well be higher depending on your federal and state tax brackets. In the 25% federal and 8% state brackets, you’d owe $3,750 in federal and $1,200 in state taxes on a $15,000 withdrawal. So even without penalties, you’d lose one-third of a withdrawal to taxes.

The money you take out also wouldn’t be able to earn any future tax-deferred returns for you. At 60, you have a life expectancy of a couple more decades. The money you plan to withdraw potentially could grow to more than $70,000, assuming 8% average annual returns, if you leave it alone.

So using 401(k) money to pay debt is almost as dumb for you as it would be for a younger person who would pay penalties and incur an even bigger potential loss of future tax-deferred money.

Use the CD money instead, and change your spending habits so you don’t incur any future credit card debt.

How to shoot yourself in the foot

Dear Liz: I want to stop contributing to my 401(k). How do I cancel it and withdraw my funds?

Answer: You can stop contributing to most workplace retirement funds by contacting your human resources department. You typically won’t be able to withdraw the money, however, unless you can prove a hardship or you leave your job.

You should think long and hard before you discontinue your contributions, in any case. For many workers, contributing to a 401(k) is their best shot at a comfortable retirement. You may be unsettled by volatile investment markets now, but over time a diversified mixture of stocks and bonds should give you the returns you’ll need to overcome inflation and have a reasonable nest egg.

Not contributing to your 401(k) could mean giving up free money in the form of a company match and could trigger a larger tax bill, since your contributions usually are tax-deductible. Money saved within retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, is also protected from creditors should you ever be sued or have to file for bankruptcy.

If you’re disgruntled with your plan because you think the fees are too high, ask your employer to look for a more reasonable-priced option. Now that 401(k) administrators must fully disclose their fees, many companies will be looking for better deals.