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5 Ways to Avoid Borrowing From Retirement Accounts During the Coronavirus Crisis

By Christy Bieber – Apr 12, 2020 at 8:45AM

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Try these tips to leave your retirement funds invested so they can help you build a secure future.

If the coronavirus crisis has affected your income, you may be considering taking money out of retirement accounts.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act) has raised the limit on the amount you can borrow and allows you to take money out of your retirement accounts without incurring the customary penalty you'd owe before reaching 59 1/2. So you can get to your money if you need it.

But while you can tap into your retirement funds, doing so usually isn't the best move. Raiding these accounts to cover expenses today makes it much harder to achieve financial security in the future.

While this may be necessary if you have few other options and essential bills to pay, try these five things first to avoid taking money out of your retirement plans. 

Binder labeled retirement savings plan with calculator sitting on top of it.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Take advantage of government benefits

There is a lot of help available to people whose income has been affected by COVID-19.

The CARES Act provides expanded unemployment benefits, making them available to more workers and giving covered employees an extra $600 per week. 

It also provides for stimulus checks of up to $1,200 per person, $2,400 per couple, and $500 per child. Singles with incomes up to $75,000 and married couples filing jointly with incomes up to $150,000 will get the full amount; for each $100 above those income limits, the check drops by $5. 

Most people don't have to do anything to get their check since the amount will be based on your 2018 tax return (or your 2019 return if you've filed it already). If the IRS has your bank account on file, it will be directly deposited there.

But you need to make a claim if you want these unemployment benefits. They're now available to many more people, including those who are self-employed or who were planning to start a new job, as long as they were affected by COVID-19.  

By claiming all the benefits you're entitled to, you can hopefully avoid having to tap into your retirement accounts. 

2. Cut spending

If the government benefits you're entitled to don't fully make up for a loss of income, cutting your spending can hopefully allow you to avoid raiding your 401(k) or IRA. 

Reducing your expenditures on things like entertainment and dining out should be simple since you can't go out anyway. But look for other ways to reduce spending. You may be able to cancel subscriptions, save on groceries by using coupons and cooking cheaper meals, and reduce your energy bill by changing your thermostat setting and unplugging unused items that suck up power.

3. Tap into your emergency fund

An emergency fund is meant to see you through situations like an income cut due to COVID-19. If you have money saved, use it to supplement your government benefits and make up any shortfall in your budget after cutting spending. 

4. Consider a 0% APR credit card to cover expenses

The stimulus check won't arrive immediately, and your unemployment benefits may take some time to start, especially because most states have a backlog of claims. 

Rather than borrowing from your retirement fund to cover short-term costs while waiting for benefits, consider applying for a credit card offering an introductory 0% interest rate. You can use the card to pay for purchases without owing interest for several months.

This approach is best only if you are 100% confident you'll be able to pay off the card before you owe interest, since you don't want to be deeply in debt when the pandemic ends.

5. Look into programs that banks and other creditors offer to defer payments

Most financial institutions are offering help to customers affected by COVID-19. If you talk to your creditors, you'll likely find they're willing to put accounts into forbearance and waive penalties and late fees.

In most cases, interest continues accruing even if payments are paused. That makes total repayment costs higher. Still, it's often better to simply pause payments and make them up later rather than taking money out of your retirement accounts, especially if you're pausing mortgage payments that tend to be at low interest rates. 

Keep your retirement funds invested if at all possible

Keeping your retirement money invested helps over the long term. You can avoid selling investments during a time of high volatility and make sure your money continues to work for you. Unless you have no other choice, you're better off trying to make things work financially now so you don't have to struggle in the future.

But if you have bills you must pay and don't have other options, using some of your retirement funds may be your only choice. If so, try not to stress too much; this crisis will pass, and you can hopefully invest more once the economy gets back on track after the coronavirus crisis passes. 

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