Double-dipping doesn’t just refer to the threat of a new recession this year. Fidelity Investments says the number of loans and hardship withdrawals from 401(k)s is on the rise.
Some 45 percent of participants in tax-deferred 401(k) programs who took a hardship withdrawal between mid-2008 and mid-2009 have taken a second one since. The average withdrawal amounts to $4,600; the top reasons reported by plan sponsors are prevention of a foreclosure or eviction, paying for college, or buying a primary residence. The good news: the average rate at which clients are contributing to their plans held steady at 8 percent in the second quarter.
“The reasons I’ve heard typically are the spouse is out of work. There’s just nowhere else to go for a lot of these folks,” says Keith M. Lucas, a senior financial advisor at Ameriprise Financial Services Inc. in Tallmadge, Ohio. “I think what’s happened is for the past 10 or 15 years people were using their homes as their piggy bank. That’s not an option any more.”
Fidelity holds about $680 billion in corporate 401(k) accounts for about 11 million participants. Last quarter 62,000 plan participants initiated a hardship withdrawal, up from 45,000 in the first quarter. “We recognize that for some, taking a loan or a hardship withdrawal from their 401(k) may be their only option because it’s their only form of savings,” James M. MacDonald, president of Fidelity’s Workplace Investing unit, said in a statement. The share of participants with outstanding loans from their plans increased to 22 percent last quarter, a 2 percentage point increase year over year. The average loan amount was $8,650 with an average duration of 3.5 years.
Pulling money out of 401(k)s is not cheap, if the participant pulls the money out before age 59 ½. In addition to reporting the withdrawal as ordinary income, the investor must pay a 10 percent penalty. Money can be borrowed from the plan, without penalty, with a repayment schedule set up through the participant’s employer. But there are risks here as well; if a worker who has borrowed from his plan is laid off from his job or leaves the job, the entire borrowed amount must be repaid immediately or it will be subject to penalties and counted as ordinary income. For people with short-term cash needs, Lucas says, it may be easier to roll over an IRA into another IRA account; investors can get direct access to the funds when the rollover is initiated and have 60 days to redeposit the cash in a new account.
It’s commonly reported that Americans are saving more these days, but the record is more mixed according to Fidelity’s data. The average 401(k) account balance at the end of the last quarter was $61,800, up 15 percent from a year earlier but down from $66,900 at the end of the first quarter of this year. About a third of participants are deferring 10 percent or more of their pay into the plans, and more participants (5.3 percent) increased their deferrals last quarter than decreased them (2.9 percent.)