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How Much Will That 401(k) Loan Cost You?

By JLP | February 28, 2008

I have read in the news lately that more and more people are tapping their 401(k) plans in order to get cash to pay bills. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in most cases, borrowing from your 401(k) is a bad idea. That said, I thought would be interesting to try to put some numbers to a 401(k) borrowing scenario to see how much a loan really costs.

The Example

With everything, borrowing from a 401(k) isn’t as simple as it seems. There are a lot of variables involved in trying to make a total cost estimate. For my example, I used the following assumptions:

1. Annual income of $80,000 or $3,333 twice per month (24 times per year).

2. 401(k) contributions of 10% per year before the loan was taken out.

3. A $10,000 401(k) loan is taken out on 12/15/2007 and paid back in equal installments over 48 months (96 payments total).

4. The 401(k) loan carries a 6% interest rate, making the AFTER-TAX payments $117.30 PER pay period.

5. Before-tax contributions to the 401(k) are reduced to 6.5% in order to keep the total amount of the after-tax loan payment ($117.30) and the before-tax contribution ($216.67) roughly equal to the previous before-tax contribution of $333.33 per pay period.

6. The 401(k) balance before the loan was $100,000.

7. The rate of return on the 401(k) is 8% per year or .33% per pay period. – I realize that straight-line appreciation isn’t the norm in the real world, but I had to factor in growth somehow.

8. For the income tax calculation I used 2008’s income tax brackets, standard deduction (for married filing jointly), and personal exemptions:

2008 Federal Income Tax Marginal Rates for Married Filing Jointly

Wow! That’s a lot of assumptions! Now for the results:

According to my numbers, here’s what the situation would look like over the next four years:

So, assuming that over the next four years you didn’t get a raise and the tax rates didn’t change, you would pay roughly $1,700 more in taxes and your 401(k) account would be $14,000 smaller if you went with the $10,000 401(k) loan. The balance difference will grow significantly over the years due to compounding so it’s conceivalbe that the extra $14,000 could grow to over $140,000 over 30 years. That’s a significant difference!

The situation gets a lot better IF you can afford to pay back the 401(k) loan AND keep your contributions the same as they were before the loan:

Your 401(k) ending balance is down a bit but you don’t take a hit on your income taxes because your contribution levels stay the same, which keeps your taxable income the same.

The Bottom Line

So, how can you minimize the negative impact of a 401(k) loan?

1. For starters, don’t take out a loan if you don’t need it!

2. If you do need a loan, then take out the smallest amount possible for the shortest amount of time possible.

3. Try to keep your contributions at the same level during the loan payback as they were before the loan. This will keep your taxable income at the same level and keep you from having to pay more income tax.

4. Take out the loan right before a market decline! LOL! I’m joking on this one since it’s not feasible to time the market.

Any questions or thoughts? Did I miss anything? Leave a comment or shoot me an email and I’ll see if I can answer them.

Topics: 401(k) | 30 Comments »


30 Responses to “How Much Will That 401(k) Loan Cost You?”

  1. cherylm Says:
    February 28th, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Ok, let me throw out a real situation since I did take a loan out last year.

    My 401K loan rate was 9.25%. I took the loan for 30 months.

    I took the loan last May before the market tanked. I’m repaying now while the market is low and my 401K is stagnating. My personal rate of return since June of last year is -7.5%.

    Normally I agree that taking a loan against your 401K stinks, but I think I’ve actually managed to end up in the one situation where it may have been an advantage. And I’m not paying someone else boatloads of interest on the same money.

    Kids, don’t try this at home, it’s dumb. I just got lucky.

  2. ian Says:
    February 28th, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    As the money you pay back is post-tax, will you have to pay taxes on it again at withdrawl? If not, can I take out a loan and immediately pay it back after tax, converting part of my 401k to an (effectively) Roth 401k?

  3. MossySF Says:
    February 28th, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    ian, no. Conversion/withdrawal would be taxed yet again.

  4. Tim Says:
    February 29th, 2008 at 6:26 am

    let’s also not forget that many 401k plans restrict further contributions until the loan is paid off.

    the underlying issue isn’t that borrowing from 401k plan is bad, but why you had to borrow from it in the first place. Many people have been sold on the idea of investing in 401k plans, etc, and keep investing on auto pilot. judging from the articles i’ve read on people borrowing, it seems that they were investing for the sake of investing rather than investing with a purpose and goals as part of a financial plan. many don’t have emergency funds, and many are using the loans to pay off discretionary spending items. if you are borrowing to maintain a mortgage, then it goes to say that you probably got a mortgage you couldn’t afford in the first place.

    i’m not naive to think there aren’t catastrophic emergencies that would require getting a 401k loan, but these should be very rare indeed if you have adequately assessed your risks and have created a real financial plan.

  5. TXAG03 Says:
    February 29th, 2008 at 10:12 am

    What if you put the loan in a Traditional IRA? Using your example you could save an additional $1,500 in taxes for that year, and it cost you $600 if you pay it back within the year. Or how about this: At the end of November you have contributed $8,334, if you put 100% of your remaining paychecks into the 401k you could max it out. Sweet! So you take a $6,666 loan to live on (maybe less whatever your take home pay would have been) and go all in to the 401k. You’ve essentially leveraged your 401k to earn your marginal tax bracket while only paying the loan interest. This is a great deal, no? I wouldn’t recommend it however! For one you would have to be a Cash Flow master to keep track of it all; and two, 401k’s are notoriously complicated, bureaucratic, and prone to making errors. They just aren’t nimble enough to do the fancy financial footwork required to make it happen, how in the world some 401k’s plan to offer debit cards is beyond me.

  6. Wilson Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Assuming 8% annual return on 401k for 30 years before adjustment for inflation, by December 31, 2029, DOW should hit 115,692. With an adjustment of 2% inflation, 8% annual return on 401k equals 10% annual return and DOW should be at the 200,618 stratosphere after 30 years of compounding growth.

    As of February 29th, 2008, the annualized return on DOW is 0.9%, pre-2% annual inflation adjustment. Where is the fictitious 8% annual return on the average American’s 401k? And how many 30 years do you have in your life?

    The double taxation on the returned 401k dollars loaned is not true. If you don’t borrow against 401k, the original 401k dollars there would still be taxed upon withdrawal, after an anemic or even negative annual return over decades. If you do borrow against the 401k at an APR of 6%, your dollars in the 401k will then really grow at 6% annually. To make things better, the compounding will not be taxed until withdrawal.

    I think borrowing against 401k is mathematically a great investment, if the APR on the loan is guaranteed 6%. At 25% marginal tax bracket, one has to find a 8% fixed income fund outside his tax shelter, a really tough job, if not impossible.

  7. "Mo" Money Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Discounting the math of borrowing from your 401k, factor into the equation the risk of not being able to pay back the loan. What if you were laid off, the loan in most cases becomes due either immediately or in 90 days. If the loan is not paid back, and you are not 59.5 years old, the loan is considered a distribution. In that case you will pay a 10% penalty plus income taxes on the distribution. The second risk is jeopardizing your retirement. As one of the other comments mentioned, if you need to think about borrowing from your 401k, you are probably not practicing good financial procedures.

  8. JM Says:
    March 4th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    @Wilson – “The double taxation on the returned 401k dollars loaned is not true.”

    Please explain. If I borrow from my 401K, I pay the loan back with after tax dollars from my paycheck. After I retire, I pay tax on anything that comes out of my 401K period. If some of those dollars were already taxed before I repaid them, I am paying taxes twice on the same dollars. Am I missing something?

  9. TXAG03 Says:
    March 4th, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Let’s use a simple example: You put $1000 in your 401k, this is not taxed, you then take a $1000 loan at 6% for 12 months, and put it in an account earning 6%. 12 months later you pay back the $1060 and then retire and take your $1060 out. So what happened? You did not receive the tax reduction on the interest portion of the loan. So this will end up being double taxed, but not the loan principle. Are most plans structured such that you pay yourself the interest? And if so who makes money on that deal, it’s a loose loose for the plan sponsor?

  10. Grant Says:
    March 5th, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Maybe I didn’t see it, but no where is it explained that when you take out a 401(k) loan, the interest on it is paid back to yourself. So if you have high credit card debt (at an insane rate), it may make sense to take out a 401(k) loan so you can pay yourself the interest rather than a CC company.

    This obviously is a worst case scenario and the person would need to definitely address the reasons behind the credit card debt (like cutting up the card!), but it doesn’t help you to get on an automated plan to pay your debt because the company will set up a regular payment to the loan through your payroll.

  11. Grant Says:
    March 5th, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    oops, I meant it DOES help you to get on an automated plan to pay your debt.

  12. Wilson Says:
    March 5th, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    My response to JM’s comment re double taxation:

    Let’s look at the two scenarios below, under both of which the interest rate involved is zero.

    Scenario A: In the beginning of the year, Suzie Orman has $1,000 in her 401k account, and caches out $1,000 from her new credit card with the promotional zero fee and 0-APR for fifteen months. 365 days later, she pays off the $1,000 credit card debt with the $1,000 after tax dollar she has made for the past year. On the same day, Suzie retires, and caches out the $1,000 from her 401k account. Assuming that Suzie’s marginal tax rate is 25% (=1/4) for the pre-retirement and post-retirement duration, the total tax Suzie will have paid is as follows:

    T_suzie=(1/4)*$1000/(1-1/4)+(1/4)*$1000
    =(1/3)*$1000+(1/4)*$1000
    =(7/12)*$1000
    =$583.33

    Scenario B: In the beginning of the year, Larry Kudlow has $1,000 in his 401k account, and he borrows that $1,000 and spends it. 365 days later, he pays off the $1,000 owed to his 401k account. On the same day, Larry retires, and caches out the $1,000 from his 401k account. Assuming that Larry’s marginal tax rate is 25% (=1/4) for the pre-retirement and post-retirement duration, the total tax Larry will have paid is as follows:

    T_larry=(1/4)*$1000/(1-1/4)+(1/4)*$1000
    =(1/3)*$1000+(1/4)*$1000
    =(7/12)*$1000
    =$583.33

    We can instantly see that

    T_larry=T_suzie=$583.33.

    Note that I’m just doing copy and paste with minimal editing on the passage for scenario B. In both the above scenarios, the FICA tax is omitted for simplicity. However, the conclusion stays the same even if FICA tax is equally involved.

    Given the mathematical reality that Suzie and Larry both pay the same amount of tax on the $2,000 involved, Suzie Orman would have a hard time arguing that the Larry Ludlow was being double taxed. Larry would probably be successful in painting Suzie Orman as a scam artist, asking her to shut down the Suzie Orman Show.

    The interest on the 401k loan, as correctly characterized by TXAG03, is double taxed. Even so, the pre-tax return of 6%/year is much more impressive than the DOW in the past eight years.

    ===========================================
    P.S. Suzie says:
    ===========================================
    “Oh, Gabby, please, I’m begging you, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

    Why?

    Money that you’ve put into your 401(k) is money that you have never paid taxes on. When you take a loan from your 401(k) — and that’s the way people get money out, is they loan it — they think they’re doing a great thing because they pay themselves back with interest.

    Here’s the problem. You pay your money back into your 401(k) with money you have already paid taxes on.

    Later on in life, when you go to take the money out again, guess what? You’re going to pay taxes on that money again. You’re volunteering for double taxation. Don’t do it. It makes absolutely no sense to ever take a loan from a 401(k).”

  13. Wilson Says:
    March 5th, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    My response to JM’s comment re: double taxation:

    Let’s look at the two scenarios below, under both of which the interest rate involved is zero.

    Scenario A: In the beginning of the year, Suzie Orman has $1,000 in her 401k account, and caches out $1,000 from her new credit card with the promotional zero fee and 0-APR for fifteen months. 365 days later, she pays off the $1,000 credit card debt with the $1,000 after tax dollar she has made for the past year. On the same day, Suzie retires, and caches out the $1,000 from her 401k account. Assuming that Suzie’s marginal tax rate is 25% (=1/4) for the pre-retirement and post-retirement duration, the total tax Suzie will have paid is as follows:

    T_suzie=(1/4)*$1000/(1-1/4)+(1/4)*$1000
    =(1/3)*$1000+(1/4)*$1000
    =(7/12)*$1000
    =$583.33

    Scenario B: In the beginning of the year, Larry Kudlow has $1,000 in his 401k account, and he borrows that $1,000 and spends it. 365 days later, he pays off the $1,000 owed to his 401k account. On the same day, Larry retires, and caches out the $1,000 from his 401k account. Assuming that Larry’s marginal tax rate is 25% (=1/4) for the pre-retirement and post-retirement duration, the total tax Larry will have paid is as follows:

    T_larry=(1/4)*$1000/(1-1/4)+(1/4)*$1000
    =(1/3)*$1000+(1/4)*$1000
    =(7/12)*$1000
    =$583.33

    We can instantly see that

    T_larry=T_suzie=$583.33.

    Note that I’m just doing copy and paste with minimal editing on the passage for scenario B. In both the above scenarios, the FICA tax is omitted for simplicity. However, the conclusion stays the same even if FICA tax is equally involved.

    Given the mathematical reality that Suzie and Larry both pay the same amount of tax on the $2,000 involved, Suzie Orman would have a hard time arguing that the Larry Ludlow was being double taxed. Larry would probably be successful in painting Suzie Orman as a scam artist, asking her to shut down the Suzie Orman Show.

    The interest on the 401k loan, as correctly characterized by TXAG03, is double taxed. Even so, the pre-tax return of 6%/year is much more impressive than the DOW in the past eight years.

    P.S. Suzie says:
    “Oh, Gabby, please, I’m begging you, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

    Why?

    Money that you’ve put into your 401(k) is money that you have never paid taxes on. When you take a loan from your 401(k) — and that’s the way people get money out, is they loan it — they think they’re doing a great thing because they pay themselves back with interest.

    Here’s the problem. You pay your money back into your 401(k) with money you have already paid taxes on.

    Later on in life, when you go to take the money out again, guess what? You’re going to pay taxes on that money again. You’re volunteering for double taxation. Don’t do it. It makes absolutely no sense to ever take a loan from a 401(k).”

  14. TFB Says:
    March 20th, 2008 at 9:41 am

    JLP – Your first table is not showing the cost of the 401k loan. It’s showing the cost of reducing 401k contributions. If that person borrowed from a bank instead of from the 401k, would he/she reduce the 401k contributions as well? If so, his/her 401k will also show a shortfall compared to if he didn’t borrow from a bank. Therefore the shortfall has nothing to do borrowing from the 401k.

    The second table correctly shows the cost of 401k loan, which is not much. Also consider the fact the person borrowed from the 401k probably because the interest rate is more favorable than a loan from the bank, he/she also saves on interest, which can be plowed back to the 401k and makes up the shortfall.

    Of course the 401k loan still has the risk of being called if the borrower changes employment. But that’s not the subject of this post.

  15. ExamineEveryViewpoint Says:
    March 20th, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    @ post # 9

    You would not have $1060 to pull out in retirement. The 6% in interest does not go to you, it goes to the plan sponsor (unless you are the plan sponsor). When you deposit the $1060, the $60 goes to the financial institution, not you. Only the $1000 goes to you, and while the $1,000 was out, it wasn’t earning anything in your 401(k). It created a lost opportunity cost in addition to costing 6%.

  16. JLP Says:
    March 20th, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    ExamineEveryViewpoint said:

    “You would not have $1060 to pull out in retirement. The 6% in interest does not go to you, it goes to the plan sponsor (unless you are the plan sponsor). When you deposit the $1060, the $60 goes to the financial institution, not you. Only the $1000 goes to you, and while the $1,000 was out, it wasn’t earning anything in your 401(k). It created a lost opportunity cost in addition to costing 6%.”

    Actually, with a 401(k) loan, you are paying yourself back with interest. That 6% goes to you, not the plan sponsor.

    You are correct that you lose the growth on your money while it’s out of the 401(k).

  17. Mark Says:
    March 25th, 2008 at 7:21 am

    But, I have a different scenario…

    Status:
    Company match is 100% up to 4% of pay, none thereafter.
    Contribution is at 10%
    401k return so far this year is -8%
    I am over 50.
    Large amount on CC to repair Mom’s house for sale – but there it sits waiting for a buyer in this market.

    Rather than take a 401k loan to payoff the CC, I am considering reducing the 401k contribution to 4% so I still get the company match, and get a little extra payroll $$ to accelerate payoff of the CC.

    Once the CC is retired, the percentage would go back up to at least 10% (if not more). Once the house sells, I can put the money back in to the 401k in $5k chunks under “catch-up” provisions.

    Your thoughts?

  18. kim Says:
    July 7th, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Not saying I am for 401k loans, but they are not double taxed. The income to pay back the loan is. The same income that would be used to pay back any other loan. The same income to save up instead. What if they were not taxed. A person could take out a 50k loan with a one year repayment and escape taxes on 50k of income. That would be one hell of a loop hole. What if you loan 10K 5 different times during your career? Are you being taxed 6 times?
    If someone is considering loaning from their 401k to pay off bills the biggest red flag to me would be “Is this going to solve your problem long term.” Because if it’s not they just pulled out bankrupsy protected money to pay off a creditor and now it’s fair game. If someone is in that much trouble they should let the FICO go. That can be rebuilt. If the last option is the 401k. Leave it alone, pretend it’s not there and deal with the situation as is.

  19. Lori H Says:
    October 14th, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Can you let me know about modeling a loan right now, since my 401K has lost a bundle? I would rather get out of this cc debt. most of it is for my animals and i am also considering pet insurance, though with pre-exising conditions it is now a probably a moot point. Veteranarians make more than MDs now! Seriously~!
    Financially challenged in LA

    PS My contribution has been 9%, with employer match up to 3% and I have 16 years to retirement.

  20. Piper Says:
    October 15th, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I get that the loan itself doesn’t cost much. I get that there is opportunity cost to the money you take out in the loan.

    But it seems that how big that opportunity cost is depends greatly on the motion of the market. So the lucky ducks that borrowed from their 401ks a year or so ago and are paying themselves back 6% have, it turns out, really helped their overall finances long and short term.

    If that’s true, is the corollary true? Assuming that as of this October, the market can really only go up, that the opportunity cost of the 401k loan is greatly amplified by the expectation (likely?) that the market will rise substantially over the loan repayment period?

    Comments?

  21. Hypothetical Says:
    November 6th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Hypothetical scenario:

    If I have $50,000 in my 401k I can take out a loan for $25,000 at 4% interest rate. I can take the $25,000 an put it in a high yield savings account and get 4% interest on it. If I use the savings account to pay back the loan am I not getting 4% at no cost to me since the interest from the 401k loan goes back into the 401k account?

  22. Response Says:
    December 15th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    To hypothetical:

    If you take out a 25,000 loan with a 4% interest rate, you’re going to be paying back $564.48 per month.

    If you put that $25k into a savings account, is it paying you interest constantly, monthly? yearly? Assuming yearly, you won’t get your first return until the 1st year is paid.

    So you’d get $25k-monthlies * 0.04 = $729.05 in interest for that first year. You’ve paid yourself back $6773.76, so you only have $18226.24 left in the magical savings account.

    Second year: $458 in interest from the savings account, 11452.48 left in it.

    Third year: $187.15 in interest, $4678.72 left in the account.

    Fourth year: You’d run out of money before the end of the year, so you wouldn’t get any interest. On top of that you’d have to come up with $2095.04 from your own pocket to cover the obligation of paying yourself back.

    Since the magic interest from the savings account only adds up to $1374.30, you still need $720.74 to pay the rest of the payments. That $720.74 comes out of your pocket, as post-tax dollars. (say you’re in the 28% tax bracket, that means it cost you $280 owed to taxes to borrow that money).

    So no, you don’t get any free cash to spend. Your 401k might do well in the current market though, to do that, since the annual return is something like -50% for 2009!

  23. Reality Says:
    December 21st, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Bottom Line #4.
    LOL take out a loan right before a market decline.

    You’re example is great.
    10K loan on the 15th of December 2007.

    I wish you would consider tracking and redoing the math every 15th of December, until the end of the 48 months.

    Follow the S&P with your 10K loan.

    How much would you will potentially gained had you avoided the market tumble and are now paying back/buying back shares at dirt cheap prices as you repay your loan.

    For additional bonus points…
    Tack on the elimination of that 15-30% CC interest that made you dip in your 401K in the first place.

  24. paul Says:
    March 2nd, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Good morning sir,

    While we can all agree on the negative effects
    of a 401k loan , how about a 401k withdrawl
    for those who are over 60 yrs old therefore
    would not be penalized ?

    thanks, Paul

  25. MickyG Says:
    June 21st, 2009 at 6:53 am

    I am paying PMI on my mortgage; I hate it! If I take loan (about 15k) against 401k, I can skip the PMI, and potentially save about $200 a month. Is it wise to take loan against 401k in this scenario?

  26. Its all good Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I am considering taking a loan out of my 401K because I have credit card debt with interest that went up. I dont have enough money with my take home pay left for basic incidentals & gas. I am thinking about borrowing $2000 from 401k and paying it back in 36 months. Is it wise to take a 401k out in this scenario? Your Thoughts?

  27. L Willliams Says:
    December 31st, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    What do you think about Hardship loans against your 401k? This will eliminate double taxation, since you will be taxed once + penalty. You will not be able to contribute to your 401k for approx 6 months, depending on your company rules. Wouldnt this be a better option that taking out a loan?

  28. M. Henson Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Companies use your 401K Balance against you
    in “inducing” you to retire. The HR person
    checks your 401K balance in order to “show”
    you that it’s time to retire (the company
    is hoping to push you into retirement).

    I want to continue working. So, I want to
    keep my company 401K balance low, while
    taking advantage of the matching etc.

    LOAN TRANSFER TO MY ROTH?

    So I want to use a 401K loan with my current
    company to *TRANSFER* to my ROTH with outside
    Investment Company EJones. (My current company
    can’t see my EJones balance). I don’t have
    enough money each year to pay the maximum
    possible on my ROTH. I could pay $2,000 more
    for my ROTH and $2,000 more in my wife’s ROTH.

    So here’s the plan – *See Any Problems*

    I take out a $4,000 Loan from my current company
    401K, with a 12 month payback, using my current
    401K contribution portion, which is *Above* the
    matching limit (I don’t lose any matching funds), to pay back the loan.

    I transfer the $4,000 to our ROTH accounts
    immediately (next day). Now this money is
    “working” for me in the market.

    At the end of the 12 months:

    My Company 401K balance is lower and will
    look “worse” to my HR department,
    making it less likely they will try to
    force me into retirement.

    The money remained in the market, growing
    appropriately.

    ROTH money is tax free when withdrawn.

    I am out the fees from the 401K loan, but
    the interest went back into the 401K
    account at work.

    * I repeat this every year. My company 401K
    account stays low and I can work longer
    because “I’m not able to retire yet.”

    Comments please – thanks!

    Matt Henson

  29. John Says:
    May 26th, 2010 at 8:31 am

    In retrospect, your statement about taking out the loan before a market decline was timely. Hopefully people followed your advice :-)

    I was fortunate enough to let my spidey senses dictate and pulled my 401k to cash in 2008 when the dow was around 13000. Unfortunately I’m still in cash.

    It seems like this would be a great time to take a 401k loan out for as long as you plan to be bearish. You could take a loan out for an amount up to your “no risk” number and still grow equity by paying yourself the interest.

    I’m considering this for the down payment on a house. Sound like a good idea or did I miss something?

  30. Matt Says:
    June 11th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    In 2010 looking back at the 50K we took out in a 401K loan in 2007 to buy a house wasn’t a bad move. The market tanked in 08′ so that was $50K that was unaffected by the drop. We sold the house in 09′ for 95K more than we bought it for, which was far better than the market. Then we were putting the money back into the account during the time the market was going back up. Not a bad move. just wish I could say it was premeditated.

Comments