The flagging state of the economy has left many individuals and families to cope with rising gas prices and food costs, struggle with their mortgage and rent payments, and manage credit card debt and other common monthly bills. Whether individuals are contemplating how to pay off their credit card or obtain a mortgage amid the “credit crunch” and “economic downturn,” many people may be considering alternative sources of financing to reach their goals, including the tapping of a retirement account.

You can generally withdraw funds from your 401(k) three ways: through regular distributions, hardship withdrawals or plan loans. Many employers have adopted 401(k) plan provisions that allow employees to borrow money from their retirement account. Although borrowing from your 401(k) may be an option, there are several important considerations you should take into account before tapping your retirement fund.

The basics of borrowing from your 401(k) plan

The amount that you can borrow from a 401(k) plan is limited to 50 percent of the value of your vested benefit or $50,000, whichever amount is less. However, you can take a loan up to $10,000 even if it is more than one-half of the present value of your vested accrued benefit. Interest on a 401(k) plan loan is not deductible. Despite withdrawing funds from your 401(k) through a plan loan, you will remain vested in your account, subject to your obligation to repay the loan.

If certain requirements are not met, a loan from your 401(k) plan will be treated as a premature distribution for tax purposes, subjecting you to current income tax at ordinary rates plus a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty on the amount distributed, certain requirements must be met. You must repay a loan from your 401(k) within five years, subject to only one exception for a loan used to make a first-time home purchase (a principal residence, not a vacation or secondary home). This “residence exception” allows for a loan term as long as 30 years.

Loan repayments must be made at least every quarter, and are generally automatically deducted from your paycheck. If you are unable to repay the loan and default, the IRS treats the outstanding loan balance as a premature distribution from your 401(k), subject to income tax and the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. Additionally, most plan terms require that you repay the loan within 60 days if you leave or lose your job.

Drawbacks to borrowing from your 401(k)

Before you dip into your 401(k), you need to be aware of the many disadvantages to taking money from your retirement savings. First, and foremost, many plans contain provisions that prohibit you, and your employer, from making contributions to your 401(k) until you repay the loan or for up to 12 months after the distribution. This is a critical disadvantage to borrowing money from your 401(k) because you are not saving for retirement during the time you are repaying the loan, which may take up to five years, or for the year in which contributions are prohibited. This not only means that you are not saving for retirement for a substantial period, you are also not earning a return on the money you could have contributed albeit for the suspension.

It is imperative that you consider the effects of suspended contributions and the lost earnings and tax-free compounding you could have earned on the money you borrowed from your 401(k). And, as previously discussed, if you default and are unable to pay the loan balance, the outstanding amount is treated by the IRS as a premature distribution and subject to income tax at your ordinary tax rate as well as a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. Additionally, the maximum contribution you will be allowed to make in the year following the suspension will be reduced by the amount contributed in the prior year.

Another point to consider: the money you borrow will only earn the interest you pay on the loan. Typically, on a 401(k) plan loan, administrators use an interest rate of one to two percentage points above prime interest rates. While paying a lower interest rate to yourself may be more favorable then paying a higher interest rate to a bank, you aren’t necessarily earning money, especially considering that the interest you pay on the loan could be significantly lower than the potential earnings you could be making if the money remained in your account.

Potential double taxation

In fact, the interest you pay on the loan is money taken from your paycheck, after-taxes. While it is not an additional cost you’d be paying to a bank, but paying yourself, it is money you may essentially be paying tax on twice. That is because the money you pay yourself interest with is taxed in your paycheck currently, then later when it is distributed to you from the plan in retirement as ordinary income.

Because of the significant tax and financial consequences from taking a loan from your 401(k) or other retirement account, you should consult with a tax professional before doing so. We’d be pleased to discuss the implications of, and alternatives to, borrowing from your 401(k) or another retirement account.