The COVID-19 pandemic has been more than a health crisis—it’s been a financial crisis as well. Business closures, job loss, reduced hours, and limited financial relief led to many savings accounts taking a major hit. As a result, more than 2 million Americans took advantage of the waived penalty for early withdrawal from a 401(k) or other qualifying account set forth in the CARES Act of 2020. This benefit may have been a financial life raft for some, but the move to tap into retirement funds isn’t without short- and long-term impact.
401(k) Early Withdrawal in 2020
Dipping into a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k) before age 59 ½ typically is not without penalty. However, in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the CARES Act of 2020 made it possible for retirement savers younger than 59 ½ to withdraw, for Covid-related reasons, up to $100,000 from qualified accounts without paying the usual 10% early-withdrawal penalty. For Americans who took a withdrawal, the money is yours and you don’t need to figure out a repayment plan. However, the flip side to this move is that retirement funds you’d planned to live on in the future are now diminished.
Taxes Upon Withdrawal Still Apply
The CARES Act temporarily eliminated the 10% early-withdrawal penalty, but the legislation didn’t pardon the taxes due. While you don’t generally pay taxes on contributions to traditional 401(k)s and IRAs, you do need to report income and pay taxes upon withdrawal. This holds true even though the CARES Act canceled the 10% early-withdrawal penalty for a short time. The temporary rules allow for the distribution to be spread across three years, but you need to account for a least one-third of the taxes due on that amount on your 2020 tax return.
Paying it Back is Recommended
Though you’re not required to pay back this type of withdrawal, experts agree that it’s generally in the saver’s best interest. Doing so allows you to avoid the taxes and to replenish your retirement account. If you pay back the full distribution amount within the three years, you can amend your tax returns and get all the money back paid in taxes.
For those who took a plan loan, you generally have five years to pay it back. You’ll need to be diligent in sticking to the plan’s repayment schedule. A loan that isn’t paid back could be counted as a distribution, therefore taxes (and possibly a penalty) will apply.
Savers who took a coronavirus-related distribution have more leeway in developing repayment strategies that best serve their personal situations. Those who took a plan loan have less flexibility, but some repayment strategies could be advantageous, including:
- A mortgage refinance. Given the current low interest rates, refinancing might save a few hundred dollars a month. That savings could then be redirected to repay the 401(k) funds.
- A home equity line of credit. Take advantage of low interest rates, with the ability to pay back the line of credit over at least 10 years.
- Student loans. For savers with college-age children, don’t count out the possibility of relying on federal student loans to help fund college costs while using the freed-up out-of-pocket cash to help pay back funds taken from a 401(k), perhaps in a lump sum. A federal undergraduate loan interest rate of 2.75% through June 30, 2021 combined with conventional thinking that you can borrow to pay for college make a potentially attractive avenue. Just be aware to not overborrow and dig yourself deeper into debt.
Some people may need to apply more than one strategy to return the money to their 401(k), relying on different options that will get them through the next few years. Work with a financial advisor to help determine the best path forward to getting back on track.
The beginning of a new year has long been associated with starting from a blank slate and setting new goals for the year ahead. While 2020 taught us that plans and goals can quickly veer off course through no fault of our own, maybe 2021 can teach us the value of planning anyway—even in the face of the unknown. The financial tasks set forth below will help you pay down debts, save money, and better prepare you for whatever 2021 has in store.
File Your Tax Return ASAP
Not only does filing early help stave off refund-hungry thieves, but, generally, the sooner you file the sooner you get your refund. If you’re planning on owing the IRS, it’s better to know early and make arrangements for payment.
Given the unemployment plunge of 2020, keep in mind that unemployment checks are typically taxable, so if you received extended jobless benefits, be prepared to face a potentially greater-than-expected tax bill.
Check Your Withholding
You can use an online income tax calculator to estimate how much you’ll owe in federal taxes. Use your prepared 2020 tax return and your first pay stub from 2021 to check that you’re on track with tax withholding. If not, the calculator can help work out adjustments to your paycheck, and you can contact your employer if you need to make changes.
If you’re a business owner, you may need to make estimated quarterly payments. Tax professionals can help you work out amounts and details.
There’s no time like the present to organize your financial life. All those paper receipts and statements scattered on desktops or tossed into random drawers? Corral them into labeled file folders, baskets, or envelopes. If you want to shed the paper clutter all together, go digital with an accounting software like QuickBooks. A digital snapshot of your finances will help you gain a better grasp for where you are financially before setting new goals.
Commit to Saving in a Realistic Way
Instead of just thinking about saving, commit to establishing a habit of saving by striving for a concrete goal. Set the amount and time frame for your goal, then come up with actionable steps on how you’re going to reach it. For instance, set up an automatic draft from checking into savings, take on a side hustle, and/or comb through your budget to see where extra funds could be found. In order to set yourself up for success from the get-go, be sure to be realistic. A goal of $100,000 in five years might be realistic for some people, while beginning with a goal to save $50 a month will be more on par for others.
Create a Budget
First, look back over bank and credit card statements from last year to help identify spending patterns and areas of improvement. Next, set a budget. Think of your budget as a roadmap of how you’ll save and spend your money, starting with essentials, such as mortgage, food, utilities, and healthcare; then move to recreation and savings. Keep in mind that your budget has movable parts, meaning life circumstances can change, even month to month.
Start an Emergency Fund
An emergency fund is exactly what it sounds like—funds set aside for an unexpected cost like car or home repairs. At the minimum you should aim for $1,000 to be put into an emergency fund, and try to work your way to saving three months’ worth of income.
Spend Your Medical FSA Early Rather than Later
If you have an employer-provided flexible spending account, spending it as early in the year has possible has a few advantages, including:
- Acquiring medical expenses early in the year can help you meet insurance deductibles, so the rest of your health care can cost less.
- If you leave your job at any point during the year, you can spend the full amount you had planned to contribute—up to $2,750—and aren’t required to finish making the full FSA contribution.
- You mitigate the risk of not using the full amount by the deadline and potentially losing money.
Consult a Financial Advisor
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a millionaire to seek professional guidance from a financial advisor. Whether you’re looking for a one-time consultation or on-going advice, someone in the know can help set you on the path for long-term planning.