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401(k) withdrawal taxes

One of the most attractive features of a 401(k) plan is that you can contribute pre-tax dollars throughout your career. This reduces your taxable income and allows you to contribute more to your retirement with each paycheck. That said, you’re only postponing taxation, not avoiding it entirely. You’ll still have to pay taxes on that money once you start withdrawing it.

Are 401(k) Distributions Taxable?

The short answer is yes – your 401(k) distributions are taxable.

This may comes as a surprise, because there is some confusion around how retirement accounts work. People often refer to retirement accounts like 401(k)s as tax-advantaged, or tax-deferred. What this means is your investments within your 401(k) or IRA grow tax-free. Unlike taxable investment accounts, you won’t be charged income tax or capital gains tax as your 401(k) account grows each year. However, things change once you start receiving distributions from the 401(k). As you pull money out, you’ll owe incomes taxes on the funds. Some 401(k) plans will automatically withhold 20% or so of your account to pay for taxes. You’ll want to check with your plan provider to see how your particular 401(k) works.

Wondering when you can start cashing out? Once you reach age 59 1/2 you can withdraw money from your 401(k). If you don’t need the money yet, you can wait until you reach age 70 1/2 to withdraw funds. However, once you reach 70 1/2, it’s no longer a choice to withdraw from your 401(k), it’s mandatory. The IRS has defined required minimum distributions for certain retirement accounts, including 401(k)s.

What Is the 401(k) Tax Rate?

401(k) withdrawal taxes

Your 401(k) withdrawals are taxed as income. There isn’t a separate 401(k) withdrawal tax. Any money you withdraw from your 401(k) is considered income and will be taxed as such, alongside other sources of taxable income you may receive. As with any taxable income, the rate you pay depends on the amount of total taxable income you receive that year. At the very least, you’ll pay federal income tax on the amount you withdraw each year. Retirees who live in states that have additional income taxes, such as California and Minnesota, will have to pay that as well. (Some states are more tax-friendly to retirees.)

You can calculate how much you’ll owe for income tax to help plan ahead. If you’re using your 401(k) to replace your previous salary, you can expect similar taxes as years prior. However, if you’re planning on living on less, and limit your withdrawals, you might find yourself in a lower tax bracket. If that’s the case, you’ll owe less in taxes because of your income drop.

What Happens if You Withdraw Your 401(k) Early?

You might find yourself in a situation where you need the money in your 401(k) before you reach 59 1/2 years of age. The account is designed to be part of your retirement plan, but circumstances come up where you can’t avoid dipping into the money for other reasons. Down payments, emergency medical bills and education costs are a few examples of expenses some people pay with 401(k) funds.

If this is the case for you, expect to pay a 10% penalty fee. This is on top of the income tax you’ll pay for withdrawing the funds. Remember, even if it’s paying for an emergency, it’s still counted for tax purposes as income. You’ll want to run the numbers, adding the tax and penalty tax, to see if it makes sense to pull money out early. It’s also important to factor in the opportunity cost of pulling your investments out of the market.

In some cases, there is an exception to the 10% additional tax. The IRS lists the circumstances where the tax doesn’t apply. Losing your job at 55, or starting a SOSEPP (series of equal periodic payments) plan are two examples. You’ll still be on the hook for income taxes, of course.

Given the tax hit and opportunity cost of early withdrawals, it’s not ideal solution. Before you commit to a penalized withdrawal, consider if borrowing the money from your 401(k) might be a better solution.

How to Minimize 401(k) Taxes

401(k) withdrawal taxes

You won’t be able to get out of paying taxes on the funds you withdraw from your 401(k). However, there are a couple of tips and tricks that might help you lower the total tax you pay. Be sure to check with a tax expert or financial advisor if you want to be sure of the best course of action for your specific situation.

If you happen to hold stock of your company within your 401(k) account, you could potentially treat the appreciation of that stock as a capital gain rather than ordinary income. The long-term (over a year) capital gain tax rate is 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on your tax bracket. For many investors, this means a lower tax rate than their ordinary income tax rate. To actually pull this off, you’ll need to transfer the stock into a taxable brokerage account. Don’t be afraid to consult with an expert if you want to take advantage of this strategy.

The other factor to consider is your tax bracket. If your 401(k) distributions will put you in the lower end of one tax bracket, see if you can start distributions earlier, spreading things out and potentially dropping you into a lower bracket. As long as you start after age 59.5, you could save on your total tax bill with this method.

The Takeaway

Retirement may mean an escape from work, but unfortunately, it’s not an escape from taxes. Stay ahead of the game by budgeting what you’ll owe the government each year. That way, you can enjoy your retirement knowing that you won’t be surprised by the tax bill. It’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive about taxes.

Tips for Retirement Savings

  • Planning for retirement can get complicated: You have to anticipate your income needs, invest your money to make sure it grows and account for taxes. It’s not wonder many people choose to work with a financial advisor. If you don’t have an advisor, consider using SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool to find one. Just answer some questions about your financial situation and the tool will match you with local advisors who can meet your needs.
  • Prefer to take a DIY approach to investing and retirement planning? You can start by using this retirement calculator to see if you’re on pace for a comfortable retirement. If you’d like to invest more to grow that nest egg, check out one of these brokerages where you can open an IRA. You might also use a robo-advisor, which generates an investment plan for you for less than you’d pay a traditional advisor.

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/Zinkevych, ©iStock.com/gece33, ©iStock.com/wutwhanfoto

Nina Semczuk, CEPF® Nina Semczuk is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. She helps makes personal finance accessible. Nina started her path toward financial literacy at fourteen after filling out her first W-4 and earning her first paycheck. Since then, she's navigated the world of mortgages, VA loans, Roth IRAs and the tax consequences of changing states or countries at least once a year. Nina specializes in mortgage, savings and retirement education. Nina is a graduate of Boston University and served as an officer in the military for five years. Find her work on The Muse, Business Insider, Fast Company, Forbes and around the web.
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