Reader Vj dropped by with the following question:
If you have $10,000 worth of credit card debt at 10% interest would it be advantageous to get a loan from your 401K to pay it off and pay yourself back?
According to Liz Pulliam Weston over at MSN Money, this is one of the 7 most common 401(k) blunders. I’m not sure things are so black and white, but here’s what her article says:
What seems like a great idea — Borrow your own money! Pay yourself interest! — has plenty of traps for the unwary:
~ The biggest pitfall is the risk you take should you lose your job. Your loan would become due, and, if you couldn’t pay it back at once, you would owe income taxes and penalties on the unpaid balance.
~ The interest rate you pay yourself may be lower than what you would pay most other creditors, but paying yourself interest is no substitute for the real return you would be earning if you had invested those payments instead.
~ Borrowing from your retirement funds is often a sign that you’re overspending — particularly if you’re using the proceeds to pay off credit card debt. People who use “easy outs” like 401(k) and home-equity loans to pay off their cards often don’t change the underlying behavior that put them in the hole. They just run up their balances again, winding up another day older and deeper in debt.
There are several great points in there, but in the end it is still a possibility. But I would rank it as a “last resort.” Then again, if you’re having trouble paying your credit card debt, wouldn’t you also have trouble paying your 401(k) loan?
There are some definite alternatives you should look into first. Try this:
Find some “0% APR for one year on balance transfers!” credit card offers. These are very common – Chase is offering it on their Freedom card, currently. There’s always several floating around. Read over the terms, but don’t apply yet.
Call up your current credit card company, and tell them, firmly but politely, that you’re going to get this 0% balance transfer, and move your money off their card. Chances are, they’ll offer you a lower rate. Take it. This way, even if you can’t move your money, or if you can only move some of it, you have a lower rate on the original card.
Apply for that 0% balance transfer card, and hopefully, you’ll be approved. Move as much of the balance as you think you can pay off before the introductory rate ends. This part is very important. If you can’t pay off the whole $10,000 before the intro rate is up, and the regular rate isn’t better than your original card(s), then only move what you can pay off in the year.
This plan assumes that you’ve been making regular payments on all of your cards and bills, and thus have a clean enough credit history to qualify for a 0% intro rate. Since the original question had 10% interest rates on the credit card, that’s a pretty safe assumption (if your recent credit history was bad, you’d be looking down the barrel of 30+%!).
All in all, the 401(k) is not the first place I would look, not by any means. Do you have savings sitting around earning less than 10%? Do you qualify for a Lending Club loan at less than 10%? Is there anything you can trim down in your budget to free up some more funds for paying down this debt? If you can’t spend less, can you think of any ways to earn more?
Oh, and cut up the card(s) until it’s paid off. Once it is paid off, if you feel that you can use it without carrying a balance month-to-month, you can always call up the card company and have them issue you a new one. But no matter what method you use to pay down your debt, especially if it’s a loan from your 401(k), the key is to not charge anything more to that credit card.