Bret Nason

Attorney at Law

Bret Nason

Attorney at Law

Is Borrowing from Retirement Savings a Good Idea?


I read an article on that said nearly 20% of Americans felt the need to dip into their retirement savings in 2010-2011 to deal with immediate financial needs. Borrowing from your 401(k) or IRA might make sense in some situations, but consumers should consider all their options before making the decision.

One problem with using retirement savings to pay down unsecured debt is that those savings are almost always fully exempt in bankruptcy. This means that your 401(k)/IRA is protected and you will get to keep it despite your bankruptcy filing.

If borrowing $10,000 from your future is going to allow you to avoid bankruptcy and come out ahead in the long run, it’s the wise choice. For example, if you have credit card debt of $10,000 and also have nonexempt assets worth $20,000, a bankruptcy filing would likely cost you more than using some of your retirement savings to settle that $10,000 debt. However, most of the people I see on a daily basis don’t have nonexempt assets. In those cases, the bankruptcy filing is the better choice because it allows the client to discharge the majority of unsecured debt and keep the retirement savings for its intended purpose.

Another problem with using retirement savings to pay down credit card debt is that it is often a temporary solution. Too often, I see people who have tried to avoid bankruptcy by draining all of their retirement savings only to discover that they still can’t afford the payments on the remaining debt. They struggle along for as long as they can, until they are hit with a small claims judgment or foreclosure suit. While a bankruptcy filing can help at that time, the client would have been much better off saving the retirement funds and filing the bankruptcy sooner.

Before raiding your retirement savings, think about your reasons for doing so. If you need the money to catch up on your mortgage payments and keep your house, it’s worth considering (assuming you’re not using your other available funds to pay credit card bills instead of the mortgage). But borrowing that money to pay down credit card debt and to stave off an inevitable bankruptcy for a few months merely delays the fresh start that you need.

Which should be the last resort, filing for bankruptcy or depleting your exempt retirement savings to make credit card payments? I’d really like to read your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: Ken Teegardin


  1. Peter Mason

    Great article and gives a person something to consider which path to take. I have a question. I was laid off, thus no income. I am considering bankruptcy because my non exempt savings account is about to run out. I do have exempt money in a company 401K which is now a rolled over IRA. Here is my question. Can I reaffirm my home that I own (primary residence and it does meet the exemption limitation) without a job? In other words, the courts are probably going to wonder how I will continue to pay the mortgage without a job. I will pay the mortgage by using money from my exempt IRA accounts until I find a job. I have a significant amount of equity in the home, but it is less than the exemption limit. Can I reaffirm my home without a job, but instead use my 401K money to continue making monthly payments? Will the mortgage company and courts allow me to do that during our bankruptcy?

    • Bret Nason

      That’s a question for your attorney, but as a general matter, what you propose would not be a problem in the Western District of Wisconsin.

      Mortgage lenders typically don’t want your house, they want your money. If you’re willing to continue making your mortgage payments, the bank doesn’t care where it comes from. If you’re willing to reaffirm, the bank will most likely go along.

      Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to reaffirm on real estate debts in most jurisdictions. The Bankruptcy Code doesn’t require it, and most states require a default in payments before a lender can foreclose. Therefore, some bankruptcy judges won’t approve a reaffirmation agreement on real estate. In those cases, the debtor can continue making payments as usual and keep the home (assuming he is current on the payments). Depending on where you live, your bankruptcy attorney may advise against reaffirming your mortgage debt.


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