401k Withdrawal Rules | What Happens If You Cash Out of Your 401K?

by RJ

in Investing

What’s one of the stupidest financial mistakes made by young adults–the decision to cash out of their 401(k)s. The USA Today reported that 60% of workers in their 20′s cash out their 401K when leaving or changing jobs.

The purpose of this article is to explain the 401K withdrawal rules are and discuss ways to avoid the penalties.

401K Withdrawal Taxes and Penalties

Here’s how the 401K withdrawal rules work. If you’re under 59 1/2 and withdrawal from your 401K, the amount is included in your gross income and accessed a 10% penalty.

For example, if your tax rate is 15% and you wanted to withdrawal $5,000, you would only receive 75% or $3,750 of your investment.

There are a few exceptions to the rule including hardship withdrawal and substantially equal periodic payments.

Avoiding 401k Withdrawal Rules | The Emergency Fund

The penalty for cashing out of your 401K, is great example of the benefits of an emergency fund. At a minimum, you need to have three months worth of expenses saved in a high interest savings account.

If layoffs are common in your field, you might think of having 6-8 months of expenses saved.

Avoiding 401k Withdrawal Rules | The Roth IRA

Did you know that you can withdraw contributions from a Roth IRA tax and penalty free? This is one reason, you might want to invest in an IRA over a 401K, if your employer doesn’t match contributions.

Avoiding 401k Withdrawal Rules | The Rollover

The best way to avoid the penalties for cashing out of your 401K is to rollover your 401K. There are multiple ways you can go about this and the optimal plan depends on your situation.

  1. You can rollover your old 401K to a new 401K. This option is only available though if you’re changing jobs.
  2. You can rollover your 401K into a Traditional IRA.
  3. You can rollover your 401K to a Roth IRA. Unfortunately, you have to pay income tax on the amount rolled over. However, for anyone who plans to be in a higher tax bracket in the future, this method will give them the highest after-tax return.

Cash Out of 401K to Pay off Credit Card Debt?

There is no simple solution to this problem. The answer is different for everyone.

If you’re contemplating this move, make sure you look at all other options before cashing out. This means that you should look at getting a second job, having a roommate or two, selling everything you can on eBay and Craigslist, or even moving back in with the parents.

If you haven’t exhausted all other options, you shouldn’t have this conversation.

401K Withdrawal Rules | Conclusion

The purpose is to show you that there are better options than cashing out of your 401K.

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.

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R LNo Gravatar May 21, 2010 at 12:02 am

I’m thinking of cashing out of my 401k. Reason being, we get paid late & we stress over our payroll bouncing. How can I declare hardship withdrawl? Do I pay a high penalty?

RJNo Gravatar May 21, 2010 at 4:06 pm

@ RL

You might have to rephrase your question for me. Are you saying that your employer doesn’t pay you on time or that by the time your paycheck arrives, you have a lot of bills due?

Romana NevarezNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I have been terminated from my job I would like to withdrawl my 401k account and have it sent to me. How do i go about doing that?

RJNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 10:18 am

@Romana – It depends on your situation. One option could be to rollover your 401K into a Traditional IRA. You don’t pay any taxes. Plus, it’s very simple. You can open up a a Roth IRA and have your old company deposit the funds directly in there.

AnnaNo Gravatar August 5, 2010 at 12:46 pm

I never gave written permission-or signed anything and I automatically got enrolled into a 401k. I don’t want it (yes I’ve heard enough lectures on how they’re so great), and I want to cancel it asap. I want to cash it out and move it to a savings account. Thoughts please? I’m furious because How am I penalized for something I NEVER authorized?

RJNo Gravatar August 9, 2010 at 11:16 am


Companies now automatically enroll their employees. It’s proven to increase contribution rates. It’s not against the law, as far as I know.

If you were to cash out of your 401K, what’s your plan to save for retirement, if you don’t mind me asking? Maybe the automatic enrollment was a good thing.

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