The June Kiplinger’s magazine ran an article, “Raiding your 401(k).*” It advises against borrowing from one’s 401(k) and cites a T. Rowe Price study suggesting that someone borrowing $10,000 for 5 years (at age 35) will be short $145,000 at retirement even after paying back the loan. At 10%, $10,000 would grow to $131,100 in 27 years, that’s just math. Maybe they think this guy will retire at 63, not 62. But he did not take a withdrawal, he took a loan. My 401(k) charges 6.5% for a loan, credited back to the account. This means a 3.5% hit to the return on that borrowed $10,000. The account will come up short about $900 for having had the loan outstanding. Still using the 10% return, the retiree may find he is short nearly $13,000 at age 62, certainly not $145,000. Someone at T Rowe hit the wrong key, and none of my friends at Kiplinger’s catch this?
Think about this, though, the story cannot just end there. I can make the case that what matters is where that $10,000 loan went. Did the person buy a plasma TV and sound system? Or did he pay off all his credit card debt (at 24%) and start fresh? I can add to this – perhaps he was paying $288/mo and would have done so for 5 years to pay off the cards, but now is able to pay only $196 to the 401(k) loan, and use the extra $92 as an addition monthly deposit to his account. He is in the 25% bracket, and deposits a full $123 (which is the gross amount that nets him the $92) to his 401(k) and it’s matched by his employer, dollar for dollar, so at the end of year 1 he has nearly $3000 more in his account which more than makes up for the $350 hit he has from the loan itself. By staying on this path, he’s actually ahead by over $150,000 at retirement time.
As with any example, your mileage may vary. There is just one point I’d like you to take from this post. In finance, there are few absolutes. For every person who uses their 401(k) loan wisely, there may be five who blow the money and run up their credit cards again. But just as I take issue with Dave Ramsey’s statement that ‘responsible use of a credit card does not exist’, I feel that there are wise ways to use loans, 401(k) or otherwise. While I admit that a short article appearing in a magazine cannot cover every possibility, the one missing (and most important question was ignored – what does the borrower do with the money?
*The article is not yet available on line. As soon as I am aware it’s accessible, I will link to it.
UPDATE – I made an error here. (I prefer to leave the error in tact, above, but add this footnote.) In fact, the article did state “assume contributions stop for the life of the loan, as usually occurs”. This would make the math work, although I still take issue with these assumptions. I plan to revisit this subject in a future post.