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By Larry Anweiler, Full-Time Faculty Published April 2014
Originally, the 401(k) was set up as a retirement vehicle that forced employees into a savings plan which would provide for a comfortable retirement. The economy's current condition makes things unsure. Employers have reduced the amount of matching funds contributions and lengthened the vesting times for employees. The IRS penalties on early withdrawals from 401(k)s are at 40 percent. A 401(k) is tax deferred and tax is assessed at retirement when the employee should be in a lower tax bracket. Currently, liquidation before age 65 will incur a flat 40 percent tax which will be reflected in the check to the employee. While penalties were meant to discourage employees from dipping into retirement plans, job insecurity and unemployment/underemployment have caused Americans to withdraw from retirement plans at record numbers, with big penalties.
For example, a 35-year-old man contributes for 10 years into a 401(k) with a current value of $50,000. He is unemployed and unemployment payments end. After four months with no income, he cashes in $20,000 of his 401(k) for household expenses. He must pay a 40 percent penalty on any cash received (40 percent is greater than any of today's current tax rates) as a penalty/deterrent. He receives only $12,000 in cash to pay his bills, effectively giving up four years of contributions which can never be recovered. He needs to replace the principal and tax before retirement (to be back to zero), but he loses 1-2 years of contributions because of waiting periods required to get into a new plan. With only $30,000 left in his retirement, payments will be smaller and will be taxed at a rate which is unknown. What if he needs to take a second or third liquidation, effectively destroying all or most of his retirement savings?
Is there a better plan? Today's economy requires looking at retirement realistically rather than subscribing only to an employer plan. Self-directed plans require more effort since they are not managed.
One plan would be to set aside a percentage of every paycheck into a regular stock account. Because the employee would not be restricted by a structured plan before being able to participate, the contribution amounts and investments would be flexible, and taxes would already be paid. Mutual funds and regular stock or bond purchases would incur a commission. On stocks, the commission is paid both for purchase and sales. Mutual fund commissions are charged when the fund is purchased or when the fund is liquidated and an annual management fee is assessed. Stock purchases do not incur an annual management fee and stock accounts allow freedom to purchase a variety of investments without the requirement of a minimum purchase.
If an emergency occurs, the employee sells investments, or takes a margin loan against the portfolio, and pays back the loan through appreciation in portfolio value and/or via cash deposited into the account in coming years. Taxes have been paid and there are no withdrawal penalties. A final advantage to having a regular account rather than a 401(k) account is that when retirement does come, the retiree can live fully on what has been accumulating in the account without the burden of unforeseen taxes. He is able to deal with life's situations as they occur.
For today's planning, the prudent investor must be agile and have choices available when emergencies occur. By planning realistically, the retirement years won't be derailed by economic fluctuations.
Larry Anweiler is a full-time faculty member at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
By Cynthia Waddell, PhD, CPA, CFE
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