As we begin our working careers, retirement seems like a distant concept; and rightly so, for many it is 30 to 40 years away. Because it is so far away, many people starting out do not even bother to enroll in the 401k available through work. Those who do enroll will fall into two basic camps. Some will set it up and forget about it and not worry about it until they are approaching retirement. And some will watch it closely, seeing how much they have. Unfortunately, it is the latter camp that often will dip into their retirement savings for purchases that are not quite necessities.
I am not saying there are not times when it is acceptable, or even necessary, to raid your 401k. But these times should rarely, if ever, come up. For instance, large unforeseen medical bills may require a person to have access to extra cash. If you are disabled and no longer able to work you may need to take what is the equivalent of an early retirement. You can even get at your retirement savings if you are buying a house for the first time. The thing these all have in common is that you can get around the 10% tax penalty imposed by the IRS.
There are other times that may seem like an emergency where a person can be tempted to use their 401k. But even if your car is broken and you desperately need a new one, this is not an emergency. Nor is taking a vacation. Or a flat screen TV. There are very few times where purchasing any sort of goods would constitute an emergency.
The reason is that there are bigger consequences than what you can immediately see. Take this example. You are 30 years old making $50,000 per year and putting 10% of your income into your 401k. By the time you are 65 you will have just over $965,000 (assuming 8% average rate of return and no company match). While this should be enough to ensure a comfortable retirement, it often does not turn out this way. Suppose instead you work at that job for 8 years and decide to accept an offer with another company. You cash in your 401k that has now grown to $56,000. You buy a truck and take the family to Hawaii. Starting the new job, which pays $60,000 per year, you invest in the same way. When you hit 65 you will have a little over $575,000. That new truck and vacation cost you almost $400,000.
The 401k is a retirement savings vehicle. It is not short-term money to use as you please. Instead of cashing out your 401k, and paying between 25% and 50% in taxes and penalties, use it as it was intended. For those emergencies and opportunities, you should have a well funded opportunity and emergency fund. If you leave the 401k alone (and are setting aside enough of your check) you can retire a millionaire.
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