5 Things to Know About Using Your Roth IRA as an Emergency Fund

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Updated on Monday, February 4, 2019

Emergencies happen to everyone. Unless you are living under a very lucky star, you will likely encounter a major financial emergency at some point in your life. The problem is that you cannot predict when it will happen.

If you run into a financial emergency, then you need to be aware of your options. One route is tapping into your Roth IRA account in order to fund the emergency. Although taking money out of your Roth IRA is not an ideal financial situation, it may be more advisable than taking out a loan from your 401(k) or taking out a high interest loan.

What to know before using your Roth IRA as an emergency fund

Before you decide to take money out of your Roth IRA in an emergency, you need to understand what is at stake and how to minimize your losses.

1. Take out only what you absolutely need

The general idea of a Roth IRA is to allow your after-tax money to grow and be withdrawn tax-free during retirement. When you choose to take money out of your Roth IRA early, you are losing out on the potential for compounding interest that can really grow your investments.

Remember, this account is one of the ways you can save for retirement. If you withdraw money from your account early, then that may result in postponing your retirement to a later date.

2. Understand contributions vs. earnings

You can take out money you’ve contributed to your Roth IRA any time, without penalty or tax. But, if you want to take out earnings — the money that you’ve made from investing your contributions — you could be subject to a 10% penalty on that withdrawal.

All distributions of earnings are subject to the 5-year rule. The rule means that if you withdraw your earnings before the Roth IRA account has been open for 5 years, then you will be required to pay taxes.

If you are under the age of 59 and a half, then you are able to withdraw money without penalties if the money will be used for one of the reasons below. However, you will still need to pay taxes on the earnings you withdraw from your account.

  • To pay for medical expenses or health insurance if you are unemployed
  • You become disabled
  • The account holder passed away
  • To pay for a first-time home purchase (up to $10,000)

If you are over the age of 59 and a half, then you are able to withdraw your earnings without taxes or penalties when you have met the five-year requirement.

3. Leave all rollover contributions in your account

If you choose to roll over a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, that rollover is subject to a different five-year rule. In order to take a distribution without paying taxes, you will need to leave the money in the Roth IRA account for five years.

4. You will not have immediate access to the funds

Unlike your checking account, you cannot just withdraw the money from your Roth IRA for immediate access. In fact, it can take several days to secure your funds.

“It usually takes a few days, so in the real case of emergency, it is not a viable option,” said Rivi Biton, a CPA and JD at a tax firm in New York. If the financial emergency can wait for your Roth IRA distribution to come through, then you may be able to make it work. If you cannot wait for the distribution and have no other options, Biton recommended, “If credit card funds are available, using them and then paying them off with the distribution is a good option.”

It is important to get started on the distribution process as soon as you know that you need the money. Otherwise, you may not get it in time to solve your problem.

5. Invest back into your Roth IRA when the emergency is over

Once you have made it through the emergency, you will want to begin aggressively investing back into your Roth IRA. Although you will be unable to make up for lost time, you will be able to continue contributing to your Roth IRA.

Each year, you are allowed to contribute a certain amount to your Roth IRA. For 2019, you will be able to contribute up to $6,000 if you are under the age of 50 and up to $7,000 if you are over the age of 50.

The contribution window for your Roth IRA each year ends on April 15 the following year. For 2019, you will have until April 15, 2020, to contribute to your Roth IRA for the previous year. Taxes must be paid by the final April 15 date, which is why you have until then to finalize your contribution for the previous year.

Each contribution window is an opportunity to rebuild your account. When you are able to, move past the emergency and start reinvesting for your retirement.

Alternative options to fund emergencies

Tapping into your Roth IRA in the event of an emergency can seriously set back your retirement savings and it can be difficult to catch back up. But, if you can stick to just taking out your contributions and not your earnings, taking from your Roth can be a penalty-free option.

Here are a few other options to consider if you need to fund an emergency:

  • Create an emergency fund. Many recommend creating an emergency fund with between three to six months of expenses saved. The fund can help you through minor emergencies (an expensive car repair) to major emergencies (losing your job). No matter what kind of emergency life throws your way, having an emergency fund with enough cash will help see you through to the other side. At the very least it will give you a little bit of breathing room between a major emergency and finding the will to get back on your feet.
  • Liquidate a brokerage account. If you have a brokerage account that has grown over the years, it can be painful to liquidate it. However, it is an option with fewer penalties and taxes attached. You may be able to fund the emergency with the liquidated assets in that account.

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