A large and growing share of American workers are tapping their retirement savings accounts for nonretirement needs, raising broad questions about the effectiveness of one of the most important savings vehicles for old age.
More than one in four American workers with 401(k) and other retirement savings accounts use them to pay current expenses, new data show. The withdrawals, cash-outs and loans drain nearly a quarter of the $293 billion that workers and employers deposit into the accounts each year, undermining already shaky retirement security for millions of Americans.
With federal policymakers eyeing cuts to Social Security benefits and Medicare to rein in soaring federal deficits, and traditional pensions in a long decline, retirement savings experts say the drain from the accounts has dire implications for future retirees.
FROM 'BAD TO WORSE'
"We're going from bad to worse," said Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security. "Already, fewer private-sector workers have access to stable pension plans. And the savings in individual retirement savings accounts like 401(k) plans -- which already are severely underfunded -- continue to leak out at a high rate."
A report from the financial advisory firm HelloWallet found that more than one in four workers dip into retirement funds to pay their mortgages, credit card debt or other bills. Those in their 40s have been the most likely culprits -- one-third are turning to such accounts for relief.
Fresh data from Vanguard, one of the nation's largest 401(k) managers, show a 12 percent increase in the number of workers who took loans against their retirement accounts or withdrew money outright since 2008.
The most common way Americans tap their retirement funds is through loans, which must be repaid with interest. Those who withdraw money face hefty penalties. In most cases, they not only incur a 10 percent federal tax penalty but also pay income taxes. The costs are financially harmful to families even as money-management firms reap massive fees for handling retirement accounts that ultimately are not used for retirement.
In addition, employers often are subsidizing the accounts with matching contributions on the assumption that the money is helping to secure their employees' retirements.
"What you have is 401(k) participants voting with their wallets saying they would much rather use this money for other purposes," said Matt Fellowes, a former Brookings Institution researcher who is CEO of HelloWallet. "In many cases, the only one benefiting is the vendor."
FEWER HAVE PENSIONS
Since 401(k)s were created by Congress in 1978, concern about the pervasive use of retirement funds for other expenses has grown as other means of retirement security have dwindled.
In 1980, four out of five private-sector workers were covered by traditional pensions that paid them a fixed benefit based on their salary and length of service once they retired. Now, just one in five workers has a pension, leaving 401(k)s and similar retirement savings accounts as the primary vehicles for retirees to supplement their Social Security benefits.
But millions of Americans, caught between flat wages and high expenses for everything from sending children to college to making home repairs, feel as though they have little choice. The withdrawals have grown substantially in the wake of the financial crisis.
In 2010, 28 percent of participants reported having an outstanding loan against their retirement accounts, an all-time high, according to a survey of 110 large employers by Aon Hewitt, a human resources consultancy. And nearly 7 percent of employees took hardship withdrawals that year -- roughly a 40 percent increase since the recession, while 42 percent of workers cashed out their plans rather than rolling them over when they changed jobs.
Charlotte Knox, 62, has worked as a housekeeper at Baltimore's Hyatt Regency hotel since 1984. She earns $13 an hour, is struggling to recover from a hip replacement and is planning to retire next month. But partly because of past withdrawals, her 401(k) balance is only $60,000, which is all she has to supplement her Social Security.
"I don't have any money," she said. "I'm just taking it a day at a time. That's all I can do."
$120G NEAR RETIREMENT
Overall, about a third of American households participate in 401(k)-type accounts, which hold a combined $3.5 trillion in assets. But a large portion of that money does not make it to retirement. A recent study by Boston College's Center for Retirement Research found that the typical household approaching retirement age has an average of $120,000 in retirement savings, enough for roughly a $7,000-a-year annuity.
"401(k)s are not being used for retirement by a large and growing share of workers because they are misaligned with the very basic financial problems most workers face and must address," said Fellowes of HelloWallet, which provides benefits advice to companies.