Which One Is Right for You?

401(k) Loans vs. Personal Loans

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Reviewed byAlvin Yam, CFP
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Updated: April 19, 2024

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When you need quick access to funds, 401(k) loans and personal loans are two options worth considering. While a 401(k) loan allows you to borrow against your retirement savings, a personal loan lets you borrow from a lender based on your creditworthiness.

Understanding the differences between a 401(k) loan and a personal loan will help you determine the best option for your unique situation. Each type of loan carries unique advantages and drawbacks, affecting your immediate financial needs and long-term financial health.

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What Is a 401(k) Loan?

A 401(k) loan is a way to borrow money from your retirement savings. Essentially, you're taking a loan against the balance in your 401(k) account. This option allows you to access funds without a traditional loan application, as it doesn't require a credit check. The process involves borrowing against the amount you've accumulated in your 401(k) and then repaying this amount, plus interest, through paycheck deductions using your after-tax earnings.

Plans also have discretion over features like loan amounts, terms, rates and eligibility. The specifics can vary depending on your plan's rules, so checking with your plan provider for the exact terms is important. With a 401(k) loan, you can use the borrowed funds for various purposes, such as home repairs, medical expenses or even debt consolidation.

Features of 401(k) Loans

Generally, a 401(k) loan allows you to borrow up to $50,000 or 50% of your vested account balance, whichever is less, with a repayment period typically up to five years.

GENERAL REQUIREMENTS

To be eligible for a 401(k) loan, you must participate in your employer's 401(k) plan with a sufficient vested balance. The plan itself must allow loans, as not all do, and specific requirements can vary by employer. Borrowers often choose this option because it doesn't require a credit check, making it accessible for many.

INTEREST RATES

The interest rate on a 401(k) loan is typically one or two points above the prime rate. It's paid back into your 401(k) account, meaning you are paying the interest to yourself. However, it's important to note that while the rates are typically lower, they are still a cost to consider.

REPAYMENT TERMS

Repayment of a 401(k) loan is usually done through payroll deductions, spread evenly over the loan term, which is generally up to five years. There may be options for early repayment without penalty. If you leave your job, whether by choice or not, the outstanding balance typically becomes due sooner, often within a few months, or will be treated as a taxable distribution. When used specifically to acquire a primary residence, such as purchasing or building a home, some 401(k) plans allow for an extended repayment period beyond the standard five years, often up to ten years.

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EXPERT TIP

When an employee leaves a job, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, there is typically a grace period during which the outstanding balance of the 401(k) loan must be repaid to avoid taxes and penalties. This grace period is usually around 60–90 days but can vary depending on the employer's plan rules. During this period, the employee may be able to repay the loan in full or set up a repayment plan to avoid default. If eligible, a loan may be rolled over to a new employer's 401(k) to continue paying per the original terms. — Alvin Yam, CFP®

Advantages and Disadvantages of 401(k) Loans

A 401(k) loan can be an appealing option due to its straightforward access and potential cost savings. However, it's helpful to weigh these benefits against the possible drawbacks, such as the impact on your retirement savings and limited availability. By carefully evaluating both sides, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your financial goals and current situation.

Pros of 401(k) Loans

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Cons of 401(k) Loans

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What Is a Personal Loan?

A personal loan is often unsecured, meaning it doesn't require collateral like a home or car. It works by allowing you to borrow a lump sum of money, which you then repay with interest in monthly installments over a set period. Depending on the loan terms, this period can range from a few months to several years.

The maximum amount you can borrow with a personal loan varies considerably based on the lender and your financial circumstances, including your income and credit score. Personal loan amounts that can be borrowed vary between lenders, from minimums as low as $600 to average maximums of $50,000 or less. Some of the most competitive lenders may offer higher maximum amounts of up to $100,000 based on an applicant's annual income, credit score and repayment history. Maximum amounts also depend on the lender's unique policies.

Unlike specific loans like auto loans or mortgages, you can use a personal loan for almost any purpose. This could include home renovations, medical bills, wedding expenses or even a vacation. However, it's important to remember that, as with any loan, the responsibility to repay the amount borrowed with interest remains, so be sure to consider your ability to repay before taking out a personal loan.

Features of Personal Loans

A personal loan is an installment loan that allows you to borrow funds and repay them over an agreed-upon period with interest.

GENERAL QUALIFICATIONS

To qualify for a personal loan, lenders primarily assess your creditworthiness, which is reflected in your credit score. Other factors include your income, employment history and debt-to-income ratio. The stronger your financial profile, the more favorable the loan terms you will likely receive, including lower interest rates and larger loan amounts.

INTEREST RATES

The interest rate on a personal loan can vary significantly based on your credit score and the lender. Generally, higher credit scores result in lower interest rates. Unlike secured loans, which have collateral that can reduce a lender's risk, unsecured personal loans usually have higher interest rates to offset the increased risk to the lender. Some lenders offer lower interest rates for shorter-term loans.

REPAYMENT TERMS

Personal loans offer fixed repayment terms, where you pay a consistent amount each month until the loan is fully paid off. This term can range between two to seven years, impacting both the monthly payment amount and the total interest paid over the life of the loan. The flexibility in the repayment terms allows for managing the balance between affordable monthly payments and overall interest costs.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Personal Loans

Personal loans offer a flexible and accessible means of borrowing, making them a popular choice for various financial scenarios. However, it’s important to consider both the advantages and disadvantages. By carefully weighing these, you can decide if a personal loan is the most suitable option for your specific situation.

Pros of Personal Loans

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Cons of Personal Loans

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Comparing 401(k) Loans vs. Personal Loans

Both 401(k) loans and personal loans provide a way to access funds for various purposes, from handling emergencies to funding significant expenses. However, understanding their differences will assist you in determining which loan option is the best fit for your unique financial situation.

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How to Choose Between 401(k) Loans and Personal Loans

Deciding whether to take out a 401(k) loan or a personal loan depends heavily on your specific financial situation. Before choosing, consider following these tips to guide you toward the most suitable option for your needs.

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FAQ About 401(k) Loans vs. Personal Loans

MoneyGeek answered some frequently asked questions about 401(k) loans and personal loans to help you decide which is best for your situation.

401(k) loans don’t require credit checks and won’t affect your credit score.

You can tap into your 401(k) to pay off your debt or fund other expenses.

No, your 401(k) loan won’t be considered taxable unless you default on your payments.

If you default on your 401(k) loan, your unpaid balance will be considered a withdrawal, and you will owe taxes on your balance. You will also incur a 10% early withdrawal fee if you are younger than 59½.

A personal loan can be a solid option for paying off debt. However, improper use of funds can put you in a deeper debt hole.

Some lenders charge a prepayment penalty, which makes paying off your loan early inadvisable.

Generally, applying for a personal loan can reduce your credit score by five to 10 points.

Personal loans from online lenders may be the easiest to get. An online lender can often process your application quickly. However, be wary of potentially higher interest rates and less attuned customer service from these lenders.

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The content on this page is accurate as of the posting/last updated date; however, some of the rates mentioned may have changed. We recommend visiting the lender's website for the most up-to-date information available.

Editorial Disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses and recommendations are the author’s alone and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any bank, lender or other entity. Learn more about our editorial policies and expert editorial team.