“Leakage,” using 401(k) or IRA savings to pay for anything other than retirement, has become something of a bad word in the personal finance world. One policy wonk, Matt Fellowes, the founder and CEO of HelloWallet, took the metaphor even further when he wrote that "the large rate and systematic quality of the non-retirement uses of DC [defined contribution] assets indicates that these plans are now being 'breached.' This is a massive systematic problem that now affects 1 out of every 4 participants, on average—which is more like a gaping hole in the DC boat than a pesky 'leak.'
But leaks come in different shapes and sizes, and it turns out that some of them—such as taking loans from your own account, which you then pay back with interest—are less dangerous to your future financial security than others. Data from Vanguard shows that 18% of people participating in plans offering loans had a loan outstanding in 2013, and about 11% took out a new loan that year, which sounds like a very high rate. But the average loan was about $9,500 and most of it gets repaid, so it actually doesn’t represent a permanent drain on retirement savings. “Loans are sometimes criticized as a source of revolving credit for the young, but in fact they are used more frequently by mid-career participants,” note Alicia Munnell and Anthony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The real problem is what is known as a “cash-out,” when employees take a lump-sum distribution when they change jobs, instead of keeping their savings in their employer’s plan, transferring it to their new employer’s 401(k), or rolling it into an IRA. These cash-outs are subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty (if you’re under the age of 59½) and a 20% withholding tax. Vanguard reports that 29% of plan participants who left their jobs in 2013 took a cash distribution. Younger participants with lower balances are more likely to cash out than older ones.
Equally risky, although more difficult to obtain, are “hardship withdrawals,” which allow 401(k) plan participants to access funds if they can prove that they face an “immediate and heavy financial need,” such as to prevent an eviction or foreclosure or to pay for postsecondary tuition bills. As with cash-outs, these withdrawals are subject to a 10% penalty as well as 20% withholding for income tax. (You can take a non-penalized withdrawal if you become permanently disabled or to cover very large medical expenses.) Employees must prove that they’ve exhausted every other means, including taking a loan from their 401(k). The rules governing IRAs are much more relaxed and include taking penalty-free withdrawals of up to $10,000 to buy, build, or rebuild a first home or even to pay for medical insurance for those unemployed for 12 weeks or more—situations one might argue it would be better to have established a six-month emergency or house fund to cover instead of taking from your IRA.
Policy watchers such as Munnell and Webb recommend tightening up regulations to reduce leakage, arguing in particular that allowing participants to cash out of 401(k)s when they change jobs is “hard to defend” and that the mechanism could be closed down entirely by changing the law to prohibit lump-sum distributions upon termination. It would also make sense to make the rules for withdrawals from IRAs as strict as those from 401(k)s, since more and more assets are moving in that direction as people leave jobs and open rollover IRAs.
But perhaps the biggest lesson of leakage is that if people are reaching into their retirement funds to pay for basic needs such as housing or health insurance, they may be better off not participating in a 401(k) until they have enough emergency savings under their belt. Contributing to a retirement plan is important, but not if you turn your 401(k) into a short-terms savings vehicle and ignore basic budgeting and emergency planning.