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In debt and desperate? Whatever you do, don’t do this

Thursday, 6 Feb 2014 | 8:00 AM ET
Don't use your 401(k) to pay your bills
Thursday, 6 Feb 2014 | 7:00 AM ET
It can be tempting to borrow against your workplace retirement account when you're facing a mound of debt and can't seem to figure a way out, but you shouldn't. CNBC's Sharon Epperson explains why.

It can be tempting to borrow against your workplace retirement account when you're facing a mound of debt and can't seem to figure a way out. Many employers offer the option to take a loan from your 401(k), but most financial advisors warn against it.

Does it ever make sense to do it? After all, you are borrowing against yourself and repaying your retirement plan with interest, which also goes back into your account. The interest rates are usually lower than those on private loans, too.

So why is it such a mistake to tap into your 401(k)?

Elizabeth Matthews Surmacz asked me this question on Facebook:

"Due to recent financial hardship, we had to borrow from my husband's 401(k). We have bad credit due to medical bills and student loans. We felt we had to catch up on bills and Christmas for our kids. How bad a mistake was this?" -Elizabeth Matthews Surmacz

Many people in Elizabeth's situation would see taking a 401(k) loan as a viable option.

About one out of five 401(k) participants (21 percent) who were eligible for loans had loans outstanding against their 401(k) accounts at the end of 2012, according to the most recent data available from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Still, most financial advisers agree that borrowing from your 401(k) is generally a bad idea.

"So you borrowed from your future retirement in order to pay for this year's Christmas shopping? Yes, its definitely a mistake," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. "The root problem here is you are spending money you don't have, and you are stealing from your future selves to pay for it. Until you can figure out how to live within your means and save for the future, your 'mistakes' are bound to multiply."

(Read more: What a poor credit rating is costing you)

Abel Mitja Varela | E+ | Getty Images

One of the biggest downsides to a 401(k) loan is that the borrowed amount can no longer benefit from tax-deferred growth. You also now have to make repayments, which will may reduce the amount that your husband can afford for salary contributions, especially if your disposable income is still stretched.

He'll also have to repay the loan in less than five years. If he doesn't pay it back on time, it will be considered an early distribution; if he's younger than 59½, you'll have to pay a 10 percent penalty, plus state and federal income taxes. If he loses his job, he'll have to repay the loan within 60 days or be liable for those penalties and fees.

But don't beat yourself up about this misstep. You are on the right track. You just got temporarily sidetracked.

(Read more: Your best money moves to make in 2014)

The good news is that your husband had a 401(k) to borrow from in the first place. At least he had been putting money away for retirement. That takes the kind of discipline that's the path to financial strength.

What about you? Do you have a retirement account? You can contribute to an individual retirement account even if you're not working. While you may feel too financially strapped, consider saving for retirement a necessity to be included in your household budget along with your other bills and expenses.

So for now, you need to stick to a plan to pay back the 401(k) loan and not resort to tapping that account again.

Follow these three steps:

1. Ensure that loan repayments are deducted automatically from your husband's paycheck. This will help to ensure that the loan does not go into default as a result of missed payments.

2. Contribute as much as you can afford to the 401(k) account, up to the amount allowed under the plan. "Affordability is the key here," said Denise Appleby of CEO of Appleby Retirement Consulting and RetirementDictionary.com. "You don't want to contribute more than you can afford to, as that may force you to borrow to pay for your everyday living expenses."

3. If you still have outstanding debts, work with a financial advisor to determine if it makes better sense to allocate more to paying off those debts than contributing to your 401(k) account. Adding to your retirement nest egg is important, but the benefits can be offset or even outweighed by the interest you repay on high interest debts.

(Read more: Can't figure out your 401(k)? You're not alone)

If you're having trouble hitting your retirement goals, or are worried about paying for college or paying off debt, send me your questions at yourmoney@CNBC.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @sharon_epperson.

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