401(k) becomes new American piggy bank

Premature withdrawals from retirement accounts like the 401(k) have become America’s new piggy bank, cracked open in record amounts during lean times.
By Richard Rubin, Bloomberg News Published: May 12, 2014
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— Premature withdrawals from retirement accounts have become America’s new piggy bank, cracked open in record amounts during lean times by people like Cindy Cromie, who needed the money to rent a U-Haul and start a new life.

Her employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, had outsourced Cromie’s medical transcription work. Cromie said the move cut her income by as much as 60 percent.

So, last year, at age 56, she moved about 90 miles from her home in Edinboro, Pa., into her mother’s basement. To make ends meet as she moved and then quit the job, Cromie pulled out $2,767 from her retirement savings.

“We made two trips and it just got to be real expensive,” she said.

Still unemployed, Cromie is trying to avoid tapping what’s left of her retirement savings — $7,000 that would be subject to taxes and a 10 percent extra penalty if she touches it in the next two to three years, before she turns 59 1/2.

It’s a small number that’s part of a much larger picture: The Internal Revenue Service collected $5.7 billion in 2011 from penalties, meaning that Americans took out about $57 billion from retirement funds before they were supposed to.

A ‘double whammy’

The median size of a 401(k) is $24,400 as of March 31, with people older than 55 having $65,300, according to Fidelity Investments. Those funds can disappear quickly in retirement, and the early withdrawals indicate that the coming retirement crisis could be even more acute than expected.

“They get hit with the penalty at exactly the time when they’re the most vulnerable,” said Reid Cramer, director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, which tries to improve savings for lower-income families. “So it’s a real double-whammy.”

For decades, Americans’ homes were their piggy banks. As values rose, they refinanced or took out second mortgages. Since the housing collapse of 2008, that’s often no longer an option. Taking money from a 401(k) — and worrying about the consequences later — became a more attractive alternative and a record number of Americans made early withdrawals in 2010.