MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s One Good Reason To Borrow From Your 401(k)

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Should I use my 401(k) for a down payment on a house?

A: Let’s start with the obvious. It’s rarely a good idea to borrow from your retirement plan.

One major drawback is that you’ll give up the returns that the money could have earned during the years you’re repaying the loan. Your home isn’t likely to give you the same investment return, and it’s difficult to tap real estate for income in retirement. There’s also a risk that you’ll lose your job, which would require you to pay back the loan, typically within 60 days, though home loans may have a longer repayment period.

Still, 401(k) borrowing has undeniable advantages. For starters, “they’re easy loans to get,” says Atlanta financial planner Lee Baker. You don’t have to meet financial qualifications to borrow, and you can get the money quickly. Interest rates for these loans are generally low—typically a percentage point or so above prime, which was recently 3.25%. Another big plus is that you pay yourself back, since the rules generally require you to fully repay within five years; 10 years if you buy a house. (Otherwise, the amount will be taxable, plus you will pay a penalty if you’re under 59 1/2.) So you eventually do replace the money with interest. Be aware, most plans limit your borrowing to $50,000 or 50% of your account balance, whichever is less.

Given how easy it is to get a 401(k) loan, it’s no wonder many workers tap their plans for home buying, especially Millennials. About 10% of home buyers borrow from their 401(k) and another 4% use funds from IRAs, according to the National Association of Realtors. And overall some 17% of Millennials report borrowing from their company plan, according to a 2014 Ameriprise study, Financial Tradeoffs. “It is where they have accumulated most of their savings,” says Baker.

All that said, when it comes to buying a home, a 401(k) loan can make sense. If you can put together enough cash for a 20% down payment, you may able to avoid avoid mortgage insurance, which can your lower monthly bill. And with interest rates still low, having a down payment now can enable you lock in a good rate compared with waiting till you have more money when mortgage rates may be higher.

If you go this route, though, take a close look at your financial resources both inside and outside your plan. Will you have to tap all your savings, leaving you vulnerable if you have a financial emergency? Do you have enough cash flow to meet your monthly payment and pay the loan? Is your job relatively secure or do you have to worry about a layoff that will trigger the automatic repayment provision?

And if you borrow, don’t forget to keep saving. A common mistake people make is halting regular contributions during the pay back period, which puts you further behind your retirement goals. At the very least, says Baker, contribute enough to get your employer match.

More on Home Buying:

Should I Pay Off Loans or Save for a Down Payment?

Single and Thinking of Buying a Home? Here’s Some Advice

“At 27, I’m the First of My Friends to Own a Home:” A Buyer’s Story

MONEY family money

How to Ask a Pal or Relative to Pay You Back

As far as unpleasant tasks go, asking a relative or friend to repay a loan ranks up there with getting your wisdom teeth pulled or spending a weekend alone with your in-laws.

The best way to avoid this awkward conversation?

“Don’t lend money to friends in the first place,” says Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute. Of course, that advice isn’t going to help if you’ve already ponied up the cash. Here’s what will.

THE GROUND RULES

Talk in person. Don’t text, email, or call; faceless communications are too easily misread. Instead, invite your friend or family member to chat over coffee or a beer so the atmosphere is more relaxed, says Randy Cohen, author of Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

Let the relationship guide you. Decide what’s more important: getting your money back or staying on good terms with the borrower. If you care more about the person than the cash and you’re in a position to do so, you may be better off forgiving the debt.

YOUR BEST APPROACH

1. Opening gambit. “I was happy to lend you the money when you needed it. That’s what friends do.”

The strategy: You’re gently reminding your pal that you came through when he or she was in trouble.

“Putting it this way shows you sympathize with your friend,” says Cohen. “Chances are, the person feels bad about not paying you back. An understanding tone decreases your chances of a hostile response.”

2. Be direct. “When do you think you will be able to pay back the $500 I lent you?”

The strategy: Hinting will get you nowhere, says Philip Galanes, author of Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today, because the person may misunderstand (perhaps willfully) what you’re asking.

Like ripping off a Band-Aid, the process will be less painful if you do it quickly and directly.

Start off nicely; getting angry is more likely to result in the borrower pushing back than if you stay calm.

“There’s no sense in starting Defcon 3,” Galanes says.

3. Add urgency, as needed. “We’re going to get hit with some really big tuition bills soon and could really use that money.”

The strategy: Of course, you don’t need to justify asking for your money back, but it can be helpful to cite a pressing reason — as long as it’s true.

“Evoking a specific thing makes repayment seem more like a necessity than simply an option,” says Cohen.

4. Provide a deadline. “I’d really like to get the money back before the end of June.”

The strategy: Specifying a schedule for payback is crucial. Otherwise, the loan may hang out there indefinitely, even if the borrower has given lip service to paying you back — and you’ll just have to revisit the conversation at a later date.

5. Offer flexibility. “Would it be easier for you to pay me back over time, say, $100 a month?”

The strategy: If the borrower pushes back or you know he will have a tough time coming up with the cash, etiquette expert Cynthia Lett suggests breaking repayment into smaller chunks or reaching another compromise.

After all, you must really care about this person; otherwise, you would never have lent him the money.

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