"If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough.” – Vicki Robin, American money book author (1945 - )
BY JULIA ANDERSON
A friend of mine, who recently retired from a management career in corporate human resources, said she, time and again, saw women make a big financial mistake by taking money out of their 401(k) retirement savings plans.
“When you hit mid-life, say 20 to 25 years into your career, you may change jobs, there may be a crisis with an adult child. Or you might want to buy a new house,” she said. “Women see 401(k) money as an easy way to pay for what they think they need. But people forget the time-value of money. They steal from their future thinking that they can make up for it later.”
Simply put: Borrowing from a long-term tax-deferred savings plan in mid-life can ruin your retirement by undermining the reinvestment growth potential of the account.
Exhibit No. 1 for my friend is a single woman she knows who enjoyed a high-paying career for 40 years. But every time she changed jobs, she took money out of her 401(k) during the transition to pay living expenses, buy a new car or go on a vacation. Now in her 70s, the woman is in ill-health and broke.
“That $15,000 you have saved from the latest job may not seem like a lot, but mid-career is when the miracle of compound interest/earnings begins to kick in,” my friend said. “My advice to women – set-up a rainy-day savings account to get you through the rough patches. Roll your old 401(k) into an IRA. Never borrow money from your future.”
She also recommends taking a hard look at your current life-style. “People think they need a certain standard of living but the reality is that we can live on a lot less,” she said. “Living on less means more money goes into long-term savings and you are not tempted to borrow to pay for something you don’t need.”
Financial advice experts agree. Writers at MarketWatch.com list these reasons for why taking money out of a 401(k) is a bad idea:
You are NOT saving when you borrow from a 401(k). Instead you are Losing Money. (Remember, money makes money)
Time will work against you. Money left untouched in a 401(k) investment portfolio will, on average, double every eight years.
Meanwhile, if you can’t repay the 401(k) loan…you are subject to a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and subject to current income taxes.
Borrowing from your 401(k) is a RED FLAG that you are living beyond your means.
Borrowing from your 401(k) violates the golden rule of personal finance…PAY YOURSELF FIRST.
You cannot make up a withdrawal.
An estimated 20 percent of Americans with a 401(k) exercise the borrowing option, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The average loan is 11 percent of assets.
When I left a teaching job in my early 20s, I thought nothing of spending the measly $800 accumulated in my retirement account over the prior two years. That was 50 years ago. I could have left the money alone, added nothing more but reinvested the 10 percent annual earnings. The nest egg could have grown over the next 40 years to $36,207 of savings. From $800 to $36,207…not bad. Our 401(k)s do this on a grander scale!
While 401(k)s have come in for criticism because of high management fees, they remain the best way to save and invest for the long-term. It’s not just saving but investing that will get you where you want to be. Stocks and bonds provide growth. Cash-only savings leaves you subject to inflation with not much return.
Additional 401(k) mistakes
Many people fail to put enough money in a 401(k) to win employer matching money…that’s free money that adds to the total. Meanwhile, make sure you and your employer understand what management fees are being charged on your 401(k) account. Higher-than-average fees eat into earnings.
While borrowing from your 401(k) can be a big mistake, trying to time the market by jumping in and out of investments can be equally harmful. YOU CAN’T TIME THE MARKET. Leave your investments alone, let them reinvest at bargain prices when markets are down. More shares mean more opportunity for growth when markets go back up. If you change jobs, roll your “orphaned” 401(k) over into a single Individual Retirement Account set up through a brokerage firm.
Most Americans have held 10 jobs by age 50 and 12 to 15 over a lifetime of work. “Too often, those orphaned accounts are frittered away in high-fee plans,” say writers at Investopedia.com. “Properly invested into a single account, it becomes much easier to choose investments for a (diversified) portfolio that fits your long-term goals while keeping costs down.”
Meanwhile, Congress may change some of the rules related to401(k) to make it easier to borrow from those accounts by reducing the penalties for doing so. I don’t get that.
Americans already have a dismal retirement savings record. Why would we want to make it easier to undermine long-term savings to finance a life-style that we can’t afford?
On the flip side, Congress also may make it easier for smaller employers to pool retirement savings money with a single state-verified retirement fund manager. Oregon is already under way with such a program called OregonSaves. Washington state is setting up the Washington RetirementMarketplace with the same goal.
Bottom line: Don’t borrow from your 401(k). Avoid the need to borrow by having a separate rainy-day fund. Embrace compound growth of your 401(k) over the long-term.
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I meet women all the time who face job and money transitions and who want to do them right. It’s about building confidence and taking charge of the future. This is your money. No one cares more than you do!
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