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'Sock it to' Your 401(k)


Three years ago, just before the credit crisis, many Americans were using home equity lines of credit like cash machines. And at that time, Bank One, now part of JPMorgan Chase, proposed allowing individuals to withdraw small sums from their 401(k) retirement plans through debit cards.

We flagged it at the time as a terrible idea.

Yet, even after all of the economic pain that the country has been through and so many Americans having to postpone retirement and lower their standards of living, the foolhardy idea of prematurely raiding one's 401(k) savings still has not gone away.

U.S. News & World Report recently ran an article titled, "The New 401(k): Not Just for Retirement Anymore," in which the author advocates taking out a loan from one's 401(k) to pay off high-interest credit card debt or eliminate other nagging financial worries. If people had easier access to their 401(k) savings, the author reasons, they might take more interest in their 401(k) and be motivated to save more.

The article went on to inform readers that they can borrow the maximum allowed by many plans, which is either half of their account balance or a maximum of $50,000. Sure, that'll do wonders for Americans' retirement dreams, since the latest average savings reported by Fidelity Investments was $66,900.

Then, to add even more insult to injury, the article characterized an upswing in 401(k) loans as proof of their merit. We view the upswing as a danger sign, particularly how common loans have become.

Fidelity reported in August that the percentage of 401(k) participants initiating a loan or a hardship withdrawal in the past 12 months increased to 11% of total active participants, up from 9% a year before. That boosted the total number of participants with loans outstanding from 20% to 22%, with the average loan totaling $8,650.

Personal financial writers should encourage investors at every turn to "sock it to" their 401(k)s, as in socking away more money, rather than K.O.'ing their future.

To its credit, The Hartford launched a marketing campaign last week along these very lines. Called "Two for Tomorrow," it advises Americans to take the 2% reduction in Social Security payroll taxes over the next two years and use the money to boost their 401(k) contributions.

That's the "sock it to your 401(k)" message to send more often.