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Cracking Your Nest Egg Early


Withdrawing money from a retirement account can carry a high price. Besides jeopardizing long-term savings, withdrawals can incur a 10 percent penalty.


Still, if you’re in a financial pinch there are some options for cracking your nest egg that are better than others. CNBC.com spoke with wealth-management advisers about the withdrawal methods available and the consequences they carry.

What to Do

401\(k\) Loan. “These loans are usually offered at very low interest rates of 4 percent to 6 percent,” says Nicholas Olesen, a private wealth manager at the Philadelphia Group consulting firm. “You actually pay yourself the interest and offer an easy payment schedule.” He only recommends tapping this account to those with strong job security, because if you lose your job the outstanding loan value will be taxed as personal income.

Early Payout Exception. “This IRS rule allows individuals to withdraw money before the age of 59 and a half without the additional penalty,” Oleson says. “This rule requires that the withdrawals be made consistently with substantially equal periodic payments that last for the greater of 5 years, or until the individual reaches age 59 and a half.”

Roth IRA. “If done properly, the individual can avoid the penalty and not pay any taxes,” Oleson says. “In order for this to work, the individual can only withdraw the money that was put into the Roth IRA, not earnings.” It’s also worth considering if you only need the money for 60 days or less. “IRAs allow one annual distribution and subsequent contribution within 60 days without taxation,” according to Michael Maynes of Maynes Investment Management in Boca Raton, Fla.

Spread It Out. Maynes recommends spreading out your withdrawal over three tax years. For example, rather than take a $300,000 withdrawal in December 2011, he recommends making a $100,000 withdrawal in 2011, another $100,000 withdrawal in 2012, and a third $100,000 withdrawal in 2013. This splits up the tax liabilities and makes them easier to manage.

What to Avoid

Qualified Expenses.
“Do not withdraw funds to pay for a qualifying expense — higher education, first-time home purchase, or health-care expenses — in a calendar year before or after the expenses occur,” says Philadelphia Group’s Oleson. “The investor will still have to pay the 10 percent penalty.”

Ignoring Other Assets. Before withdrawing funds from a retirement account, make sure you aren’t overlooking other assets. “Even if the interest rate is not as low as your 401\(k\) loan, you still may be better off using a credit card, home equity line of credit, or personal loan,” says Oleson. “Things to consider are the individual’s tax rate, credit score, job security, time until retirement, and interest rates on loan options.”

Giving Up an Annuity. “Many retirees use annuities to guarantee a certain amount of income, death benefit or growth over their life. Do not give these benefits up if you have other investments to withdraw from,” says Oleson. “Besides the taxes and penalty one will pay, there are surrender charges that can be over 10 percent for taking funds out early.”

Disregarding Employer Contributions. “Determine if your retirement plan has a vesting schedule, and make sure you don't leave money on the table with premature raids,” warns Maynes of Maynes Investment Management.

Despite the options available, many wealth management advisers remain firmly opposed to early withdrawals, no matter the circumstances.

“Don't do it,” says Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management. “If you crack your 401\(k\) nest egg, it will be the most expensive omelet you'll ever eat.”