WASHINGTON, D.C. — A large and growing share of American workers are tapping their retirement savings accounts for non-retirement needs, raising broad questions about the effectiveness of one of the most important savings vehicles for old age.
More than one in four American workers with 401(k) and other retirement savings accounts use them to pay current expenses, new data show. The withdrawals, cash-outs and loans drain nearly a quarter of the $293 billion that workers and employers deposit into the accounts each year, undermining already shaky retirement security for millions of Americans.
With federal policymakers eyeing cuts to Social Security benefits and Medicare to rein in the soaring federal deficit, and traditional pensions in long decline, retirement savings experts say the drain from the accounts has dire implications for future retirees.
"We're going from bad to worse," said Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security. "Already, fewer private-sector workers have access to stable pension plans. And the savings in individual retirement savings accounts like 401(k) plans — which already are severely underfunded — continue to leak out at a high rate."
A report due out this week from the financial advisory firm HelloWallet found that more than one in four workers dip into retirement funds to pay their mortgages, credit card debt or other bills. Those in their 40s have been the most likely culprits — one-third are turning to such accounts for relief.
Fresh data from Vanguard, one of the nation's largest 401(k) managers, show a 12 percent increase in the number of workers who took loans against their retirement accounts or withdrew money outright since 2008.
The most common way Americans tap their retirement funds is through loans, which must be repaid with interest. Those who withdraw money face hefty penalties. In most cases, they not only incur a 10 percent federal tax penalty but also pay capital gains taxes. The costs are financially harmful to families even as money-management firms reap massive fees for handling retirement accounts that ultimately are not used for retirement.