FREE NEWSLETTER

A Hardship Indeed

Greg Spears

BORROWING FROM MY 401(k) helped my wife and me buy our home in 1997. I’m grateful I was able to reach inside my retirement plan for the money we needed for the house down payment.

Experts often warn against 401(k) loans because, even if the loan is repaid, the money borrowed can miss out on investment gains. That’s certainly a risk. Still, there’s a second way of taking money out of a 401(k)—and it’s far more harmful to retirement savings. It’s called a hardship withdrawal, and it’s grown more popular in recent years.

A hardship withdrawal differs from a 401(k) loan in that the money isn’t repaid. Instead, the worker owes income taxes on the money taken from the account, plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty in most cases. The tax cost would be 32% for a single person earning $60,000—not to mention the big hole made in his or her retirement savings.

Even 401(k) loans should be used sparingly. Forget the opportunity cost of missed investment gains. The big risk is that you lose your job with a loan outstanding. If that happens, the loan typically has to be repaid in full in 30 to 60 days, depending on plan rules. If the money isn’t promptly repaid, the outstanding balance is subtracted from savings, and subject to income taxes and usually an early withdrawal penalty.

This is the worst-case scenario with a 401(k) loan—but it is, alas, business-as-usual for a hardship withdrawal. Yet, despite the hefty cost, hardship withdrawals have only become more popular and easier to get in recent years. People who badly need money should take it from their plan savings using a loan. But instead, they compound their problems by taking a hardship withdrawal.

Why would someone opt for a hardship withdrawal rather than a loan? Sometimes, a hardship withdrawal is the only option. According to data from Vanguard Group, a big administrator of 401(k) plans, 94% of plans offer hardship withdrawals, but only 81% offer plan loans. Another reason for hardship withdrawals: A worker may already have a loan outstanding, and many plans only allow one or two loans.

A third reason could be naivete—and semantics. For workers in a financial jam, a hardship withdrawal may sound like the right answer to their exact circumstance. Hardship withdrawals are permitted for only six reasons:

  • To pay large medical expenses for a worker or family member.
  • To prevent eviction from a rental or avoid foreclosure on a primary residence.
  • To pay funeral or burial expenses for a family member.
  • To make needed home repairs after a storm, fire, flood or other damaging event.
  • To pay college tuition or related fees and expenses.
  • To buy a first home.

Many of these situations are stressful and pressured, and not the time folks are inclined to carefully weigh their options. Employers used to slow down the process by requiring proof of need—an eviction notice or medical bill—before issuing hardship money. The financial need had to be immediate and heavy, and the withdrawal was limited to the amount required to meet the emergency.

Our Free Newsletter

In 2019, Congress eased the requirements after several destructive hurricanes struck U.S. shores. Workers complained they couldn’t produce the necessary paperwork if their homes had been washed away or if they’d been evacuated from, say, New Orleans to Texas.

Today, by contrast, workers can often simply name their hardship and the amount of money needed using an online application. With less paperwork, payments are faster and more convenient. Predictably, the number of workers taking hardship withdrawals jumped 48% in 2019, to 2.3% of participants in Vanguard-administered plans. If that same percentage applied nationwide, it suggests there were 1.3 million hardship withdrawals in 2019. Roughly 60 million people participate in a 401(k) plan, according to the Investment Company Institute.

In 2020, Congress opened a new door for hardship withdrawals aimed at those affected by COVID-19. People could take out as much as $100,000 penalty-free from their retirement plan account, twice the maximum available through a plan loan. Vanguard said 5.7% of its plan savers took advantage of the one-time program. If that percentage applied to the nationwide 401(k) population, it would work out to more than 3.4 million COVID distributions.

Workers can treat their COVID distribution as a loan, and pay the money back. That way, they’d avoid income taxes and replenish their retirement savings. But they can also treat the money received as a hardship withdrawal and pay taxes in installments—33% each year for three years.

Fewer than 1% of COVID borrowers repaid the money to their plan in 2021, according to Vanguard. The overwhelming majority are treating it as a hardship withdrawal. They’ll pay higher taxes now—and have less money later for retirement. A hardship indeed.

Greg Spears is HumbleDollar’s deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder. Check out his earlier articles.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
11 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Wood
John Wood
2 months ago

As far as the risk of missing out on investment gains with a loan, some plans let the participant set a higher interest rate to charge themselves, so that their 401k plan earns a decent return on the loaned funds. I took out a 401k loan to put a large down payment on my home and put the interest rate at 10%, to assure that “retirement investor me” earned 10% on my loan investment to “borrower me”.

One downside to 401k loans is that the loan payments are double-taxed: First, when the loan is repaid with after-tax dollars, and secondly when the repaid funds are subject to taxation upon withdrawal in retirement. Still, the interest that was paid to my 401k account, instead of a bank, proved advantageous, despite the double-taxation.

To Greg’s point, however, one must be confident that they’ll be at their current job until the loan is paid off, otherwise the benefits of a 401k loan are largely lost.

steveark
steveark
2 months ago

I’ve served on committees managing 401K and 403C plans during my career and in retirement. One of the things that just bugged me to no end was people getting 401K loans to go on vacation or buy a new pickup truck. Our plan, and I’m not sure about others, did not let you contribute to the plan if you had an outstanding loan so you missed being able to put in more money for retirement and it also kept you from getting the company match. Good post!

wtfwjtd
wtfwjtd
2 months ago

I wish there was some way to get people to think more seriously about their future selves. I would think that “Retire at a reasonable age” sounds a lot more desirable than “work ’til you die”, but I seem to be mistaken. As I look around, I note that many in my own (boomer) generation have, with their deliberate choices, chosen the latter by default. I fear that many of them are in for a rude awakening… but what do I know?

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago
Reply to  wtfwjtd

What you say is true and yet, many younger people still hold the expectation of retiring in their 50s I’m in a FB retirement planning group and I’d say the majority have or expect to retire between 55-60 with supreme confidence they will be fine for the next 3-4 decades.

johny
johny
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Mr Quinn, curious to know how you think one might feel supremely confident for a 40 decade retirement? What would be your methodology? For example, would you use a SW tool and feel confident if result is >95% success? Would you use the 4% rule and add a 10% buffer?

wtfwjtd
wtfwjtd
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

That sounds absolutely bonkers to me, and I certainly don’t doubt it. “Retire” on what? Thoughts and prayers, and good intentions? I mean, I get the whole “frugal” thing, but who *really* wants to quit work and eat canned dog food while living in a tent for the rest of their lives? Not me.

johny
johny
2 months ago
Reply to  wtfwjtd

i think many of these 55-60 retirees he is talking about have pensions and often some kind of retiree healthcare. They often talk about moving to a lower cost state.

Also as far as the young folks who want to retire in their 50s, if you are in tech, you can certainly do if if you invested early and meaningfully.

Randy Starks
Randy Starks
2 months ago
Reply to  johny

The biggest caution to the FIRE movement better be their healthcare; especially, a family with kids in school or college. Healthcare (good healthcare not ACA) is expensive unless you are in a group plan and these FIRE folks are not 65 and on Medicare, which isn’t free. Good insurance coverage at 65 requires Medicare and a good medical supplement plan (Plan G or N) and an Rx drug plan separately, unless you want to gamble on a Medicare Advantage plan scam, run by guess who, INSURANCE Companies, and you better be healthy and not need Brand name drugs or new drugs.

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago

Yes, hardship indeed. Hardship withdrawals, loans and daily valuations are the three worst things we did to 401k plans.

All of them added to the idea they were not retirement plans designed as a very long term investment.

johny
johny
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

one other thing i might add is having too many choices.

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago
Reply to  johny

Very true.

Free Newsletter

SHARE