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Should You Borrow From Your 401(k)?

Joyce Walsack
Joyce Walsack
Student at University of Maryland

If you're thinking about borrowing from your 401(k), consider the pros and cons first.

  • Borrowing against your 401(k) is generally frowned upon, but in some circumstances, it can make sense.
  • When you take out a loan from your 401(k), you don't have to fill out a lengthy application, the interest rate is typically lower than it is for a personal loan or business loan, and there aren't any penalties.
  • A big downside of borrowing against your 401(k) is that it harms your retirement saving potential. During the repayment period, you are barred from contributing to your 401(k).
  • This article is for business owners and professionals who are thinking about borrowing money from their 401(k) retirement fund.

Ask most financial advisors about borrowing from your 401(k), and their response will be brief and blunt: "Don't do it."

Those three words mostly sum up the prevailing sentiment on the subject. Still, there are some situations in which borrowing from your 401(k) might make sense. If you're considering taking out a loan against your plan, know the pros and cons first. [Read related article: 401(k) Plan: What It Is and How to Choose One]

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How do you determine if you should borrow against your 401(k)?

Before you begin the process of borrowing against your 401(k), you need to think through the strategy. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before proceeding:

Am I eligible?

The answer depends on your employer's plan. Employers are not required to allow loans against retirement savings plans. Some plans don't, while others allow multiple loans. Most, though, have a minimum amount you are allowed to draw from your 401(k). Check with your plan administrator, or read your summary plan description to find out if a minimum applies and, if so, what that amount is.

How much money can you borrow?

Minimum loan amounts vary, but the maximum is $50,000 or 50% of your vested balance – whichever is less. Vesting rules also vary, so check with your plan's administrator.

What is the cost?

In addition to the money you lose by reducing your earning potential (more on that later), you must pay interest. However, the interest rates on 401(k) loans can be very attractive compared with those for other borrowing options .

How long before I must repay?

Typically, you must repay in one to five years, unless the loan is for the purchase of a primary residence. A repayment schedule will be part of the loan agreement. For details, check your plan.

Key takeaway: Before you begin the process of borrowing against your 401(k),  find out whether your plan allows it, how much you can borrow, what the interest rate is and how long you have to repay.

What are the pros of borrowing against your 401(k)?

Although many financial planners and money managers advise against borrowing from your 401(k), there are some pros of doing so:

  • You don't have to apply. Because you are borrowing money from your own retirement savings account, there is no loan application to fill out. Nor do you have to provide reams of documents, a business plan or other paperwork, all of which are required for small business loans. [Considering a small business loan? Check out our guide and best picks]

  • Your credit score doesn't matter. There is no due diligence when borrowing against your 401(k), which means it doesn't matter if you have a bad credit score. Repayments aren't reported to the credit rating agencies, either, which ensures your credit score remains intact.

  • It doesn't change your debt-to-income ratio. Money you borrow from a 401(k) isn't added to your debt balance on your credit report. That's important if you want to take on a car loan or a mortgage. The more debt you have compared to income, the less likely a lender will be to approve you for a loan.

  • The interest rate is typically lower. When you borrow against your 401(k), it is a loan, which means you are required to pay it back with interest. However, the interest rate is usually much lower for a 401(k) loan than for a bank or alternative lender's loan.

  • Repayment is automatic. There's no risk of missing a payment with a 401(k) loan, because the payment is an automatic payroll deduction.

  • There are no penalties. Unlike with an early withdrawal from your 401(k), there are no penalties or taxes owed if you take out a loan against your 401(k). There is one caveat, however: You need to pay it back on time.

Key takeaway: Pros of borrowing against your 401(k) include the lack of a credit check or application, a lower interest rate than with a bank loan, automatic repayment and no penalties if you pay it back on time.

What are the cons of a 401(k) loan?

Here are the biggest reasons for keeping your hands off that nest egg:

  • Your earning potential takes a big hit. Missed growth opportunities is the primary and most obvious reason to avoid borrowing from your 401(k). Recent market volatility aside, over time, your managed investments will grow. The more dollars you have working for you, the more you can make. Pulling money out reduces your earning potential. The closer you are to retirement, the harder it is to catch up.

  • For the duration of your loan, you can't contribute to your 401(k). According to Charisse Mackenzie, a financial advisor and president of Saturn Wealth, most people who borrow from their 401(k) stop contributing to their plan while the loan is outstanding. In fact, many plans rule out contributions for the duration of the loan. Since your employer can't match what you don't contribute, that free money you'd be getting in matching funds dries up, too. That's a double whammy that you may regret in the future.

  • When you repay the loan, your take-home pay is reduced. Eventually, you have to repay yourself, and that's hard to do when you have an additional payroll deduction. Most loan terms range from one to five years, and payments come from payroll deductions using after-tax dollars. This decreases your take-home pay.

  • You're locked into your job for the duration of the loan. Changing or losing your job means you'll have to repay the debt. While it's true that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 gave job changers more time to come up with the funds, it didn't remove the requirement to repay the loan. Regardless of your plan's wording, you have until the tax-filing deadline to get that money into an IRA. If you miss the deadline, the outstanding loan amount will be considered a distribution, and you will be liable not only for the taxes but also a 10% early withdrawal penalty (assuming you're under 59 1/2 years of age).

Key takeaway: The biggest downside of borrowing against your 401(k) is the hit to your retirement earning potential, as you can't grow or contribute to these savings while you repay the loan. 

Additional reporting by Donna Fuscaldo.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Joyce Walsack
Joyce Walsack
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Joyce Walsack has spent her career working at small businesses and knows the many challenges business owners face. She lives in the Adirondacks Mountain in upstate New York where, when she’s not shoveling snow, she writes young adult fiction, enjoys boating on Lake George and hiking in the woods.