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Weston: Does a 401(k) employer match tempt you to cash out?

By LIZ WESTON of NerdWallet
Published: November 4, 2023, 6:00am

Many companies try to help their workers to save for retirement. Employers often offer 401(k)s, company matches and automatic enrollment to encourage saving.

Much of that effort goes to waste, though, when employees leave. A study published last year in Marketing Science, a peer-reviewed research journal, found more than 40% of departing workers cashed out at least part of their 401(k)s, and most of those drained every dime.

What’s more, employers may bear at least some of the blame, according to researchers Yanwen Wang of the University of British Columbia, Muxin Zhai of Texas State University and John Lynch Jr. of the University of Colorado.

The study, titled “Cashing Out Retirement Savings at Job Separation,” suggests generous company matches can make cashing out more tempting.

CASH-OUTS DRAIN FUTURE RETIREMENT SECURITY

The researchers examined records of 162,360 employees who left jobs at 28 employers between 2014 and 2016. Of the 41.4% who cashed out retirement savings, about 64% took all the money out in one transaction while another 21% emptied their accounts with two or more withdrawals.

The people who took money out had smaller balances — $15,271 on average — compared with those who left their accounts in the employer plan ($69,546) or who rolled their savings into an IRA or a new employer plan ($67,353).

The damage from any 401(k) withdrawal is significant, however. Cash-outs trigger taxes and penalties that often equal 30% or more of the withdrawal, plus the loss of future tax-deferred compounded returns. Every $1,000 withdrawn at age 35 can mean about $8,000 less in retirement funds at age 65, assuming 7% average annual returns. So a $15,000 withdrawal could mean $120,000 less at retirement age. (The younger you are, the greater the damage; the same $15,000 withdrawal at age 25 could mean $240,000 less at retirement.)

Cashing out once is bad enough, but multiple job changes could lead to workers repeatedly draining their accounts, Wang says. The median job tenure, or time employees typically remain with an employer, is about five years, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That can give workers many opportunities over a working lifetime to raid their retirement savings.

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“Ultimately, you might be only left with the very last pile of money you accumulated from your job,” Wang says.

NECESSITY DOESN’T DRIVE MOST RETIREMENT PLAN CASH-OUTS

Sometimes a premature withdrawal is the best of bad options. People may have pressing expenses and no other savings.

But relatively few workers cash out savings while they’re working, whether through hardship withdrawals or 401(k) loans that aren’t paid back, Wang says. And previous research shows that most people who cash out when they leave a job don’t need the money for emergencies or other pressing expenses, she says.

Wang’s team hypothesized that the composition of account balances might help explain why people cash out. Thanks to a behavioral quirk known as mental accounting, people tend to treat different pots of money differently, depending on the source. So we may be more likely to spend a $20 bill found on the street versus one that we earned on our own.

The researchers wondered if something similar happens when more of an account balance comes from employer matches versus employee contributions. Would people be more likely to see their 401(k) money as a windfall to be tapped rather than a resource to be protected? The researchers found that yes, bigger matches did influence cash-outs: A 50% increase in a company match raised the probability of a cash-out by 6.3%.

That’s not the only way our mental biases get us in trouble, Wang says. When people leave jobs, they’re typically told their retirement plan options — leave the money in the plan, roll it into an IRA or a new employer’s plan or cash out. Often, though, they’re not given much guidance about the best course to take. Simply mentioning the cash-out option may make people more likely to see the money as a windfall, Wang says. Plus, cashing out may seem like the easiest course if people aren’t warned about the cumulative impact of withdrawing retirement money and aren’t sure whether or how to roll the money over.

HOW EMPLOYERS CAN COUNTERACT THE TEMPTATION TO CASH OUT

The answer to reducing 401(k) “leakage” isn’t to discourage rich company matches but to encourage employers to understand and counteract the temptation to cash out, Wang says. Companies could provide financial education to departing employees, explaining the long-term impact of withdrawing retirement money prematurely.

“If they really care about their employees, they should provide more information,” she says.

Another option could be for the employer to offer separate emergency savings accounts in addition to retirement plans. That would give departing workers a source of funds to tap without penalty if they needed money. Having distinct accounts labeled for different purposes — “emergencies” versus “retirement” — could help people view their retirement savings as a resource for the future rather than a windfall to be spent today, Wang says.

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