You leave your job, and then face the question of what to do with your 401(k). If you're like 46 percent of workers, you will cash out the account even though this money is meant for retirement.
That figure comes from a survey by benefits consultant Hewitt Associates, which looked at 170,000 workers who left their job last year. The high percentage of cash outs remains much the same since 2005, Hewitt says, despite increased efforts to warn workers about the financial damage they are doing to themselves.
Cashing out has serious consequences. You'll owe ordinary income taxes on the money, plus if you're under age 55 when you leave the employer, you will owe a 10 percent penalty. And you'll have to start all over saving for retirement on your next job.
Financial planners say they try to persuade workers not to take the money and run, unless there are dire financial circumstances.
"It's one of the things we struggle with the most, trying to educate younger employees that it's not a savings account at all," says Tom Taylor, a financial adviser in Towson whose firm manages 401(k)s.
Sometimes workers will leave the money in the employer's 401(k), and then months later when the statement arrives, look at the 401(k) as newfound money and cash out, he says.
Hewitt found that younger workers tend to liquidate accounts more often than older colleagues. Sixty percent of those in their 20s took the cash, versus 34 percent of those in their fifties.
That's likely because people with small account balances - which tend to be younger workers - cash out at higher rates than those with fat balances. Eight percent of those with $100,000 or more cashed out, Hewitt found, compared with 40 percent of those with balances between $1,000 and just under $20,000.
Colorado planner Amy Noel says workers may have a dozen jobs in their lives, and that could mean lots of small 401(k) accounts adding up to a sizable sum if they left the money alone. "People aren't saving for retirement anyway," she says.
The Government Accountability Office recently did the math on cash outs. Take a 35-year-old who makes about $36,550 and contributes 6 percent of pay to her account and gets a 3 percent employer match. If she leaves her job, cashes out and then immediately starts saving in a 401(k) with her next employer, she will end up with $404,431 at age 65. But she will have $183,618 less than if she hadn't cashed out earlier.
When you leave a job, you have a few options for your 401(k). And any one of them is better than cashing out.
You could roll the money into your new employer's plan if it permits such transfers.
You can leave the money with your old employer's plan if you have at least $5,000 in your account, although some employers allow smaller accounts to remain.
Leaving money in an old plan could be a good idea if it has investment options you otherwise won't have access to, Taylor says.
You can also roll your account into a tax-sheltered individual retirement account, which will give you more control of how the money is invested.
Roll it over into a Roth IRA and you will have to pay income taxes upfront, although withdrawals will be tax-free in retirement.
Or, you can roll the money into a traditional IRA without immediate tax consequences. You'll pay regular income tax on distributions in retirement, though.
IRAs also have rules to dissuade you from tapping the accounts. But there is some leeway. For instance, if you otherwise would be subject to an early-withdrawal penalty, you won't have to pay it if you use the money for health insurance premiums and have been collecting unemployment benefits for at least 12 weeks.
The important thing is that no matter what option you choose, do your best at keeping those savings for their intended purpose: retirement.