Don’t Let a Financial Emergency Drain Your Retirement Fund

Don't let a financial emergency drain your retirement fundWhen push comes to shove during a financial emergency, that retirement money you’ve socked away can look pretty darn tempting. And for many people who either don’t have an emergency fund or have already exhausted it, that money may be the only (relatively) easily available lump sum they’ve got.

But that doesn’t mean you should automatically drain your retirement fund. Yes, you may be desperate to stave off foreclosure or pay creditors who are hounding you, but using your retirement money to do so may not the best idea — especially if you’re doing so in a last-ditch attempt to preventing having to file for bankruptcy. Here’s why.

It’ll cost you

It’ll cost you to make an early withdrawal from a retirement account — even if you’re doing so for hardship reasons. That’s because the money you withdraw will be counted as income, which you then have to pay taxes on. (Whether or not you’ll also have to pay a penalty and fees too will depend on your individual situation. Two possible choices that may cost you less are described here.)

Being taxed on the withdrawal is especially bad if you’re unemployed, because you probably can’t afford to pay the taxes when they come due. That means you could end up owing money to the IRS, which has whole lot of powers that other creditors don’t. You don’t want to be in debt to the IRS if you can possibly help it. Especially not when you’re down and out.

Desperation makes it hard to think

When we’re desperate and under pressure, it’s hard to think straight. It’s especially hard to make well-reasoned decisions that take our long term future into account when we’re in the middle of a crisis. We figure we’ll deal with this now, and worry about the future later on.

But understand that while using money set aside for retirement when faced with a financial crisis may seem like a good solution, chances are it’s actually just setting yourself up for a different crisis later on. (Unless of course you’re talking about using the money for what would literally be life-saving treatment you can’t otherwise get.)

Retirement money has more protection

If you have money in a 401k and/or an IRA, know that it’s got some protections that your other money and sources of income don’t, thanks to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCA) and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). According to TIAA-CREF, a good amount of money (typically $1 million, adjusted for inflation) held in IRAs and qualified retirement plans (such as 401k and 403b accounts) are protected from creditors during bankruptcy. That means creditors can’t get at that money if you file bankruptcy — so long as you don’t give it to them voluntarily. And in some cases — depending on what state you live in — money in qualified retirement plans may be protected from creditors period.

If you’re responsible enough to have set aside money for retirement, you’re probably also responsible enough to feel guilty for not using every last penny you can lay your hands on to repay a debt. But don’t let guilt cause you to make a decision that could be very difficult to recover from later. Laws to protect your retirement funds are in place for a reason. Check with the appropriate professional before making a decision as to what may be best in your situation.

Using up retirement money may only delay the inevitable

No one wants to declare bankruptcy or go into foreclosure, but it’s even worse to use up your retirement money and then still have to declare bankruptcy or get foreclosed on.

If it’s only going to delay the inevitable, better to bite the bullet now and regroup than to bite it later when you’ve depleted those funds for nothing.

Prioritize your future

Things can seem pretty bleak when you’re in the middle of a financial emergency (especially an extended one). But remember that there IS hope for a bright and improved future. Get through the hard times now while doing what you can to ensure that you still have money set aside for retirement if possible.


  • Every day I go to work I dream of retirement and honestly it can’t come soon enough. I wouldn’t dream of touching my 401K until my very last day of work is through. Great article and everyone needs to realize that tapping that 401k is trading in a comfortable retirement to take care of whatever short term financial issue they are dealing with.

  • Our retirement accounts would definitely be touched last. First cash on hand, then maybe a 2nd mortgage, then the Roth IRA’s….

  • Jackie… you make a very good point concerning the legal protection of retirement accounts from bankruptcy. It’s similar to the protection of personal assets from interests in a Limited Liability Company. Protecting your retirement funds from a few bad circumstances will help you preserve your way of life and help you bounce back if needed. This benefit combined with the tax incentives of retirement accounts should be enough to convince people to maximize contributions to their 401(K) and IRA.