When you really need cash, a retirement account withdrawal can seem like the fastest and easiest solution. It's your money, after all, and no one's going to stop you from taking it out.
But tapping your nest egg could create some headaches for you when it's time to file your taxes. Here's a closer look at how the government taxes some common types of retirement account withdrawals.
Traditional IRA or 401(k) withdrawals
Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s are tax-deferred accounts. This means that when you put money into them, you reduce your taxable income for the year. For example, if you earned $40,000 in 2023 and put $5,000 in a traditional IRA, the IRS would only tax the remaining $35,000 when you filed your 2023 return.
But in exchange for the upfront tax break, you agree to pay taxes on your contributions and your earnings when you withdraw the money later, whether you do so in a year or in a few decades. The IRS taxes these withdrawals at your standard income tax rate. This could be anywhere from 10% to 37%, depending on how much you withdrew from your retirement accounts and what money you have coming in from other sources, like a job.
Adults who withdraw money from their 401(k)s or traditional IRAs while under age 59 1/2 could lose an additional 10%. This is technically a penalty, not a tax, but it amounts to the same thing: You have to give some of your hard-earned money back to the government.
There are exceptions to this early-withdrawal penalty if you use your retirement funds to pay for things like higher education expenses or large medical bills. But it's generally safer to avoid taking money out of these accounts until you're over 59 1/2 if you can afford to do so.
Roth IRA or 401(k) withdrawals
You fund Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s with after-tax dollars, which means you pay taxes on your contributions in the year you make them. So returning to our example from above, if you earned $40,000 in 2023 and put $5,000 in a Roth IRA, you'd still pay taxes on the full $40,000 when you filed your 2023 return.
But once that's done, you're in the clear. The federal government typically ignores withdrawals from Roth retirement accounts when calculating your tax liability. But there are a few rules you need to be aware of.
You can withdraw contributions — dollars that you personally put into the account — free of taxes and penalties at any time. But you generally cannot withdraw investment earnings without taxes or penalties until you're at least 59 1/2 and have had your Roth account for at least five years. If you do owe these, the taxes and penalties will be the same as those discussed in the previous section.
Fortunately, when you withdraw money from a Roth account, your contributions always come out first. You should be able to look at your account history to find out how much money you've personally put into it over the years. If the amount you withdrew was less than this, you probably don't have to worry about extra taxes. But if you withdrew more than this, you'll likely owe taxes on the earnings but not the contributions.
A 401(k) loan is an option some 401(k)s provide that allows you to essentially borrow money from yourself. There's no credit check, and you can borrow up to the lesser of $50,000 or 50% of your vested balance. But you must pay back what you borrow with interest.
Each 401(k) loan has a term, and if you fail to pay back the full balance and all applicable interest within this term, the IRS considers the outstanding balance a distribution. You'll pay taxes on it, as outlined above.
But if you took out a 401(k) loan and are still in the middle of the term, you shouldn't have to worry about paying taxes on the loan yet. Just don't rush to quit your job anytime soon. Doing so can cause your outstanding balance to become due immediately, and that could lead to a hefty tax bill for you.
Paying taxes isn't the only thing you need to worry about
You could owe taxes on your retirement account withdrawals, as we've discussed here. That could mean a smaller refund for you, or it could mean a tax bill. You can either pay this upfront or set up a payment plan with the IRS. But that's not the only thing you have to think about.
Retirement account withdrawals slow the growth of your savings and could derail your future plans. Try to increase your future retirement contributions or rethink your retirement timeline to ensure you have the savings you need when you finally quit the workforce for good.
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