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At What Age Should I Start 401(k) Withdrawals?

Dana Anspach

April 4, 2024

There are plenty of best practices for growing your money in a 401(k), but what about withdrawing it? Let’s take a closer look at the rules related to the age at which you can withdraw from 401(k) plans.

By withdrawal, we mean taking money out of the plan (preferably gradually), paying your taxes on the withdrawal amount, and spending it; the types of withdrawals you’ll need to cover your expense in retirement. A rollover to an IRA or a transfer to a new 401(k) plan is not a withdrawal – it is a transfer. Rollover and transfers, when done properly, are not taxable transactions.

During retirement, intentionally or not, you’ll begin a decumulation strategy (as opposed to accumulation, which is what we’re focused on during our earning years). Think of this as a game that aims to minimize taxes and get the maximum after-tax income from your nest egg. By knowing the age-related rules, you can create a better withdrawal strategy and decide when to begin taking money out of your 401(k) plan.

The 401(k) age-related rules

Like most things tax-related, the rules are not simple. It depends on your age. Scroll the section below that correlates with your age, and you’ll find the rules applicable to you.

You’re not age 55 yet

A penalty tax usually applies to any withdrawals taken before age 59 ½. And typically, you can only withdraw from 401(k) plans at previous employers. For a 401(k) offered by your current employer, usually, you can’t take withdrawals while still working there. There are exceptions, as some plans allow 401(k) loans or hardship withdrawals. You must check with your plan administrator to see if they allow these options.

You’re age 55 to 59 ½

Under particular circumstances, you can withdraw from a 401(k) between 55 and 59½ without being penalized. Here’s how it works: if you leave your employer between the ages of 55 (actually any time during the year of your 55th birthday) and 59½, then you can withdraw funds penalty-free, provided you leave the money in that 401(k) plan. This rule applies whether it is voluntary termination or not.

This early age withdrawal provision applies as early as age 50 for certain public safety workers such as firemen, law enforcement, and air traffic controllers.

Remember, this same rule does NOT apply to plans from previous employers that you may have left long ago. And it does NOT apply to IRAs (which are not company-sponsored plans). If you withdraw from an IRA before age 59 1/2, plan on paying a 10% early withdrawal penalty tax in addition to ordinary income taxes (unless you qualify for an exception to the early withdrawal penalty tax.) So, if you terminate during the year you turn 55 but before 59½, there may be a good reason to leave your 401(k) with your former employer so you can access those funds if needed.

Note. If you roll your previous 401(k) into a new employer’s 401(k) or to an IRA, you void the early access rule! Once it’s rolled over, you cannot withdraw money until you’re 59½ without penalties unless you qualify for an exception or use an odd tax code provision called 72(t) payments.

Take caution if you plan on using this rule, but aren’t yet 55

Do not retire earlier than age 55, thinking you can access your 401(k) funds penalty-free once you turn 55.

Example. You retire at 54, believing in one year you can access funds penalty-free. Nope, it doesn’t work that way. To avoid the penalty from 55 – 59 ½, you needed to leave your employer no earlier than the year you attained the age of 55. When you leave your employer before age 55, the earliest you can access funds penalty-free will be age 59 ½.

You’re age 59 ½ to age 73, or 75

If you have a 401(k) plan sitting with a former employer, you can begin accessing those funds as early as 59½. You’ll pay ordinary income taxes on amounts withdrawn but no penalty tax. When you rollover funds to an IRA, that is not a taxable move – so no worries about taxes if you retire and consolidate accounts. Usually, consolidating makes managing the withdrawal process easier. When you start withdrawing, you can take a little or a lot, depending on your needs that year. Once you’re 73, or 75 if born in 1960 or after, you must withdraw at least a specific portion, the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD), from your nest egg each year. We cover that in item five below.

While you are still employed. If you want access to 401(k) funds from a plan sponsored by your current employer, you may not be able to get your hands on it, even if you are 59½ or older. If you’re in this situation, you will need to check with the plan administrator to see if your plan allows for an “in-service” withdrawal. Some plans allow it; others do not.

You are age 73 or older (age 75 for those born in or after 1960)

Once you reach the age where you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you can no longer defer withdrawals, with one exception. If you are still working at age 73 (or 75 for those born 1960 or after) and you are not a 5% owner of the company, you may be able to delay your RMD from your current employer plan until April 1 of the year after you retire. Check with your plan administrator to see if your plan allows this. You will still be required to take your RMDs from plans from previous employers and from any IRAs you have. The IRS imposes a 25 percent tax penalty on RMDs not withdrawn from your 401(k) on time. Ouch! That’s a hefty penalty. Don’t neglect to take out amounts you are supposed to withdraw!

Note. This article covers rules that apply to traditional tax-deferred 401(k) balances. A few years ago, a new type of 401(k) account called a Designated Roth Account came into being. A different set of rules may apply to Roth 401(k) accounts; however, beginning in 2024, there are no required distributions from Roth 401k accounts.

Given all this, what is the best age to take money out of your 401(k)?

For those with no pension or other guaranteed sources of income, it often makes sense to take money out in years when you are in a low tax rate rather than waiting until age 73 or 75 (depending on your year of birth).

On the other hand, for those with pensions or other income sources, it often makes sense to delay and only withdraw when you reach your required distribution age. The right age depends on many factors, and no one can recommend the best option for you without a complete analysis.

Consider decumulation planning

Decumulation planning helps retirees spend wisely from their retirement savings by carefully managing the timing and amounts of withdrawals. Traditional financial advisors focus on the accumulation of assets and often have little knowledge about drawdown strategies. Sensible Money focuses on retirees and helps them navigate the rules during their retirement years.

To learn more about how planning for retirement is different, read our Founder, Dana Anspach’s book Control Your Retirement Destiny. It gives you a step-by-step outline of how to plan for a transition out of the workforce. Or check out her course, How to Plan the Perfect Retirement.