Generally, any money you borrow from a 401(k) account is tax exempt. This feature is one of the reasons that - for critical short-term needs - such loans may be a better alternative to hardship withdrawals or high-interest forms of credit.
As long as you pay the loan back in a timely matter, the only tax consequence comes from the interest some plans require you pay (though the term "interest" is a bit misleading, as the funds go back into the participant's own account). Because you have to use after-tax dollars to pay the interest, the government gets to take a portion of it twice - you pay income tax on the amount again when you tap the account in retirement. However, 401(k) interest rates are typically modest - often around 5% - so the double taxation has a relatively small impact. It only takes on major significance when you're borrowing a lot of money and repaying it over several years.

When you can really feel a tax pinch is if you default on the loan. If you're younger than 59.5 years old, the outstanding loan balance is treated much like a hardship withdrawal - it's subject to a 10% early-withdrawal penalty and treated as regular income for tax purposes.

Let's say you default on a loan with a $10,000 outstanding balance and have an effective tax rate of 15%. By the time you file your annual tax return, you'll have to hand the government $1,000 for the early-withdrawal penalty and another $1,500 in income tax (which would otherwise be deferred until retirement). Within one year, that $10,000 is down to $7,500.

For this reason, it's important to determine your ability to repay a 401(k) loan before proceeding. Most planners suggest keeping your nest egg intact unless the needs are pretty dire - for example, when you're no longer able to pay utility bills or groceries. Buying a new piece of stereo equipment isn't worth the risk.

However, if you absolutely need funds and are confident you can pay the loan back going forward, the minimal tax consequences and ability to pad your account with interest can make these loans a viable option.

  1. Can I use my 401(k) to pay for my college loans?

    If you are over 59.5, or separate from your plan-sponsoring employer after age 55, you are free to use your 401(k) to pay ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. How can I take a loan from my 401(k)?

    The majority of employers offer eligible employees the opportunity to save for retirement in a qualified plan through paycheck ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Are Cafeteria plans taxable?

    Whether the benefits you receive through your employer-sponsored cafeteria plan are taxable depends entirely on which benefits ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Why is the Cayman Islands considered a tax haven?

    The Cayman Islands is one of the most well-known tax havens in the world. Unlike most countries, the Cayman Islands does ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What are the risks of rolling my 401(k) into an annuity?

    Though the appeal of having guaranteed income after retirement is undeniable, there are actually a number of risks to consider ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Why is Panama considered a tax haven?

    The Republic of Panama is considered one of the most well-established pure tax havens in the Caribbean due to extensive legislation ... Read Full Answer >>
Related Articles
  1. Investing

    2 Common Ways to Misuse Target Date Funds

    The world of asset classes is just as complicated as taking vitamins. How much should you take of small caps? Intermediate bonds? Emerging market stocks?
  2. Taxes

    The Top 10 Caribbean Tax Havens

    Discover relevant tax policy information about the top 10 tax havens located in the Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.
  3. Investing

    Why Is Financial Literacy and Education so Important?

    Financial literacy is the confluence of financial, credit and debt knowledge that is necessary to make the financial decisions that are integral to our everyday lives.
  4. Retirement

    How Are 401(k) Withdrawals Taxed for Nonresidents?

    As a U.S. nonresident, deciding what to do with your 401(k) after you return home comes down to which tax penalties, if any, you're willing to incur.
  5. Savings

    Become Your Own Financial Advisor

    If you have some financial know-how, you don’t have to hire someone to advise you on investments. This tutorial will help you set goals – and get started.
  6. Economics

    Explaining Corporate Tax

    A corporate tax is a tax levied on the profits a corporation generates.
  7. Taxes

    The 5 Countries Without Income Taxes

    Discover information on some of the best countries to consider relocating to that offer the financial benefit of charging no income tax.
  8. Options & Futures

    Pick 401(k) Assets Like A Pro

    Professionals choose the options available to you in your plan, making your decisions easier.
  9. Investing Basics

    5 Things To Ask Before Hiring A Financial Advisor

    Choosing a financial advisor isn't an easy task. Here's a list of the most important things to consider when planning for your financial future.
  10. Retirement

    How to Choose 401(k) Investment Options

    401(k) plans have become an integral part of retirement planning for good reason.
  1. Section 1231 Property

    A tax term relating to depreciable business property that has ...
  2. Duty Free

    Goods that international travelers can purchase without paying ...
  3. Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract

    A Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC) is a deferred annuity ...
  4. Exchange-Traded Mutual Funds (ETMF)

    Investopedia explains the definition of exchange-traded mutual ...
  5. Tax Deductible Interest

    A borrowing expense that a taxpayer can claim on a federal or ...
  6. Guideline Premium And Corridor Test (GPT)

    A test used to determine whether an insurance product can be ...

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Purchasing Power

    The value of a currency expressed in terms of the amount of goods or services that one unit of money can buy. Purchasing ...
  2. Real Estate Investment Trust - REIT

    A REIT is a type of security that invests in real estate through property or mortgages and often trades on major exchanges ...
  3. Section 1231 Property

    A tax term relating to depreciable business property that has been held for over a year. Section 1231 property includes buildings, ...
  4. Term Deposit

    A deposit held at a financial institution that has a fixed term, and guarantees return of principal.
  5. Zero-Sum Game

    A situation in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so that the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. ...
  6. Capitalization Rate

    The rate of return on a real estate investment property based on the income that the property is expected to generate.
Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!