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A significant factor in helping your 401k plan participants achieve retirement readiness is protecting them from themselves. In other words, helping participants avoid making bad decisions. An important component of that process is minimizing the loss of participant account balances from loan defaults.

Also called leakage, defaulted loan balances are typically removed from participant retirement accounts forever. This account leakage can be reduced by a well-designed 401k loan program. A state-of-the-art 401k loan program has the following characteristics:

401k Loan Program Best Practices


Loans limited to hardship criteria

Plan loans are horrible investments. Opportunity costs are often high, interest payments are not tax deductible and participants often reduce their 401k contributions in order to make loan payments. Then there is the issue of taxes. State and federal taxes apply to defaults as well as state and federal penalty taxes.

Many participants use access to 401k loans as their emergency cash fund. That’s bad financial planning. Rather than allowing employees to borrow to meet emergency or non-emergency needs (e.g., buying a boat or, snowmobile or paying for a vacation) many employers choose to limit participant loans to hardship withdrawal criteria.

Remember that your 401k plan is often the lender of last resort for many participants. As a result, a high percentage of plan loans are made to participants who are poor financial managers or have accumulated excessive debt. Since you as the lender can’t say no to someone who applies (absent hardship criteria) loans are often made to participants who aren’t creditworthy. Additional debt often isn’t helpful to these participants’ financial situation.

Using hardship criteria to qualify loan applications helps employers manage the application process. Valid hardship reasons include: preventing eviction or foreclosure, paying medical or funeral expenses, purchasing or repairing a primary residence, and paying educational expenses.

Only one loan allowed at a time

Many 401k plans were set up to offer multiple loans. Studies indicate that participants who take more than one loan are more likely to default. Defaults often occur when a participant moves on to another job or loses a job and is unable to continue making loan payments. Some participants also take as many loans as possible if it appears that they may be facing a layoff or moving on to a different employer, as a way of advancing a distribution from the plan. Update your 401k loan program to permit only one outstanding participant loan at a time.

Mandatory referral to the EAP

Whether or not hardship criteria are used to determine loan eligibility, many plan sponsors refer potential borrowers to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for financial counseling before they are allowed to apply for a loan. If your company does not offer an EAP, require potential borrowers to talk with the investment adviser who works with your plan.

Information shared about the impact of loans on retirement savings

Many experts feel that the participant loan area is ripe for lawsuit activity from participants who feel they weren’t given enough information about the potential negative impact of participant loans. Remember Truth-in-Lending disclosures are not required for 401k loans. Many participants have said to me, “Bob, if taking a participant loan is a bad decision, why would the company let me do it?” You should be aware that by offering the availability of 401k loans your company is indirectly implying that it is ok to take them.

Ashley Micciche shared an excellent example about the impact of participant loans on retirement savings in a recent 401k Specialist article. In her example, she points out that a $10,000, three-year loan at 5% for a 30-year-old participant with a $30,000 balance who stops contributing while making loan payments results in a loss in retirement savings of $407,630.

Loans limited to participant accounts

Many plan sponsors have decided to limit 401k loans to participant contribution accounts and the earnings in those accounts. Excluded are all employer accounts including matching, nonelective and profit-sharing.

Emergency loan program option

A number of employers have decided to offer emergency loan programs to their employees. Not only does this reduce the number of 401k loans taken, but it can help employees avoid taking payday loans at high interest rates.

Higher loan fees to participants

Higher loan fees tend to dissuade participants from taking a loan and often reduce the average loan amount requested. Studies have shown that an increase from $50 to $100 in loan fees is often enough to reduce participant loans significantly and loan balances by nearly 50%.

Pop-up screen warnings

Many participants reduce their 401k contributions when taking participant loans. Some reduce their contributions below the maximum matching contribution level. Losing matching contributions is one of the worst decisions participants can make. Make sure your recordkeeper has a pop-up screen that displays a warning message when participants reduce their 401k contributions below the maximum matching contribution level.

A tighter 401k loan program is becoming commonplace at companies committed to retirement readiness. Plan sponsors who have successfully migrated to a more stringent 401k loan program have done so as a result of effective participant education sessions that outline the pitfalls of participant loans in detail.


About the Author

Robert C. Lawton, AIF, CRPS is the founder and President of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC. Mr. Lawton is an award-winning 401(k) investment adviser with over 30 years of experience. He has consulted with many Fortune 500 companies, including: Aon Hewitt, Apple, AT&T, First Interstate Bank, Florida Power & Light, General Dynamics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, IBM, John Deere, Mazda Motor Corporation, Northwestern Mutual, Northern Trust Company, Trek Bikes, Tribune Company, Underwriters Labs and many others. Mr. Lawton may be contacted at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to 401(k) plan sponsors. The firm currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than $400 million in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com or visit the firm’s website at: http://www.lawtonrpc.com. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice, and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.