Americans ratcheted up borrowing from retirement accounts during the recession and have never stopped. Here's why these should be loans of last resort
Lingering fallout from the Great Recession includes the high rate at which workers with a 401(k) plan borrow from that pool of savings, imperiling their future retirement security.
At the end of last year, 18.2% of participants in a defined contribution plan had loans from their plan outstanding, according to new data from the Investment Company Institute. That rate has held above 18% since 2010, having jumped from 15.3% in 2008.
More workers also have taken hardship withdrawals since the financial crisis, further evidence that some at least have come to view their 401(k) plan as a piggy bank—not a retirement account. Hardship withdrawals have held steady the past few years, occurring in 1.7% of plans last year, up from 1.3% in 2008.
Loans seem to be the top choice for families plugging holes in their budget. The average loan balance is around $7,000, representing about 12% of the typical remaining 401(k) balance of $59,000. That’s a big chunk of savings that isn’t available to grow during the period it has been borrowed. You’ll pay yourself interest when you settle the debt, but not enough to replace years of lost growth in a rising stock market. In many cases, the loans never get repaid and become subject to penalties and income tax.
Loans are easily the biggest source of “leakage” from retirement plans. About one in four American workers with a 401(k) plan expect to tap their retirement account for current expenses. This leakage tops $70 billion a year, equal to nearly a quarter of annual contributions, research shows.
The issue is so concerning that experts are looking for reasonable alternatives to 401(k) plans. Some believe funds borrowed from a 401(k) should be insured so that in the case of a worker who loses a job any money borrowed from the 401(k) plan would be replaced—not permanently lost, penalized and taxed.
In general, 401(k) plan loans should be avoided—or used as a last resort. They are not as costly as some pundits would have you believe. But failure to repay is all too common. Default rates on 401(k) plan loans have roughly doubled since the financial crisis and account for about $37 billion a year leaving retirement savings accounts.