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How to Use a 401(k) for a Business

How to Use a 401(k) for a Business: This article enlightens on how to effectively use a 401(k) to either start or buy a business. A good read!

via Fit Small Business

How to Use a 401(k) to Start or Buy a Business


There are three ways you can use 401(k) business funding to start or buy a business. You can cash out funds, borrow against them, or use a rollover for business startups (ROBS). The only option that does not result in penalties, taxes, or interest charges is a ROBS, making it ideal for most situations.

If you are considering using retirement funds to start a business, a ROBS allows you to use savings in your 401(k) or IRA without any penalties or immediate tax obligations. If you have at least $50,000 in your retirement accounts, you can get a free ROBS consultation with the best ROBS provider, Guidant Financial.


3 Ways of Using a 401(k) to Start a Business


Funding OptionBest ForRollover for Business Startups (ROBS)Business financing from at least $50,000 in retirement savings.Borrow Against IRARetirement savings under $50,000 or ability to repay withdrawal in 60 days.Cash Out 401(k)Owners requiring over $50,000 without incorporating or using a ROBS.


The three options for using a 401(k) to start a business are:


1. Use a Rollover for Business Startups (ROBS)

A rollover for business startups (ROBS) lets you invest retirement funds in a new business without paying taxes or early withdrawal penalties. A ROBS is not a loan or withdrawal; instead, it allows you to tap your retirement funds early. There are no monthly payments and no repayment is required, even if your business fails.

How a ROBS Works

A ROBS is a great way to use 401(k) business funding, particularly if you have more than $50,000 in qualifying retirement savings. It allows you to use your 401(k) to start a new business. For most business owners, we recommend working with a ROBS provider to help navigate this complex transaction.

You can use a ROBS for a business acquisition, working capital, or as a down payment for additional financing. If you want to use an IRA or 401(k) to start a business, a ROBS should be your first consideration. Setting up a ROBS on your own can be complicated, which is why we recommend working with an experienced provider like Guidant.

Who a ROBS Is Right For

A ROBS is the best option for 401(k) business funding if you have $50,000 or more in a 401(k) or Traditional IRA and will work for the business full-time. In this case, a ROBS can be a great way for you to fund the establishment or expansion of your own business without borrowing money or raising equity.

For a ROBS to be a good financing option, you need to:

  • Plan to work full-time in the business: If you plan on keeping outside employment or investing passively in the business, you will not qualify for a ROBS.

  • Have enough retirement assets to start or buy a business: A ROBS will help you finance your business without having to take out a loan or accumulating business debt. A ROBS can also work well with additional financing to lower your overall debt.

  • Identify a good provider: If you are going to use a ROBS, we recommend using a ROBS provider that is experienced at setting up and administering ROBS. Using a knowledgeable provider can make the process more efficient and help ensure that your ROBS is compliant. For example, FranFund specializes in setting up ROBS accounts for franchise owners, and understands the nuances of the industry.

If you plan to work full-time in your business, and have enough retirement savings to draw from, you are probably wondering what it takes to qualify for a ROBS. While a ROBS provider will be able to determine whether or not you meet the specific requirements, there are some general qualifications that must be met by anyone pursuing this form of 401(k) financing.

ROBS Qualifications

A ROBS is not a loan, so there are no loan qualifications. However, in order to use a ROBS, your business must meet certain criteria. You have to be a C corporation (C-corp) and have a Traditional 401(k) or IRA (as opposed to a Roth). You also need to be an employee of the new business.

In order to use a ROBS for IRA or 401(k) business funding, you must meet a few requirements, which include:

  • You have an eligible retirement account: Both a Traditional 401(k) and IRA are eligible, but Roth IRAs cannot be used for a ROBS. Your retirement account must be a tax-deferred account and typically needs to be over $50,000 to be worth the setup fees.

  • Your business is a C-corp: You must be willing to have your business registered as a C corporation. This is because the business is selling shares directly to a 401(k) account. Other legal entities, like an LLC, only allow you to sell shares of the business to real individuals.

  • You are a legitimate employee of the business: If you use retirement funds through a ROBS, you must be an employee of the business you are starting for as long as the funds are invested. While there is no set number of hours that you need to work, a good rule of thumb is that you should work at least 1,000 hours per year in the new business.

There are a number of administrative rules and regulations that you must follow if you use a ROBS, such as offering a retirement plan to eligible employees in your new business. To learn more about what administrative obligations you have with a ROBS, you can read our ultimate guide on ROBS

Pros & Cons of Using a ROBS to Start a Business

It is important to consider the benefits and drawbacks of using a ROBS. By using a ROBS to finance your business, you’ll be minimizing the impacts on your business’ cash flow, because there is no debt to repay. However, you will likely end up paying service fees for the setup and upkeep of a ROBS.

The pros and cons of using a ROBS for 401(k) business funding are:

Pros of Using a ROBS to Finance Your Business

The pros of using a ROBS to finance your business are:

  • A ROBS is not a loan: If you are using your 401(k) to start a business, you can avoid taking out loans. Not only are startup business loans difficult to get, but they carry added interest and monthly payments that could impact cash flow for your business.

  • You can reduce your tax burden: The money from your retirement account is tax-exempt, which can help you reduce the tax burden of your business and increase cash flow for reinvestment. This is very important in the early stages of a company.

  • No impact of personal credit: By using a ROBS to finance your business, you are not taking out a loan of any kind. Therefore, there is no personal credit check needed, and no loan to repay that may impact your credit.

Cons of Using a ROBS to Finance Your Business

The cons of using a ROBS for financing your company include:

  • Setup fees can add up quickly: Setting up a ROBS is a complicated process that often requires outside help to avoid problems. This often means hiring financial, legal, and tax professionals for help. The costs can quickly add up in the short term for your business, but are well worth it in the long run.

  • You’ll need ongoing help from experts: ROBS has long-term requirements to ensure your business is in good standing with the IRS. This means you will likely need to work with legal and tax experts to ensure that the plan is compliant with current regulatory requirements.

  • There are opportunity costs when using retirement funds to finance a business: When you withdraw funds from your retirement account, it is no longer invested and you are no longer earning interest on your funds. Your retirement savings is now invested in your business, meaning any returns on your investment are driven by its success.

How to Set Up a ROBS

To set up a ROBS, you must form a C corporation (C-corp) and establish a 401(k) for that company. Next, you roll over funds from your personal 401(k) into the new company’s retirement plan. Using the funds you have just rolled over, the new 401(k) plan buys stock in the new C-corp.

ROBS providers typically help you set up a ROBS, which can be complicated. While any provider can help you through the transaction, the best ROBS providers offer support and have extensive experience.

If you want to set up a ROBS, Guidant is one provider that guarantees the use of outside counsel if the IRS audits your ROBS plan. They will help you through the whole process, give you expert advice on setting up your plan, and guide you through administering it afterward. You can contact them today for a free consultation.

2. Borrowing From a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business

Those who have a 401(k) can borrow up to $50,000 or half of their vested plan, whichever is less. Loan terms on 401(k) loans are typically five years with interest paid to your retirement account. You can withdraw funds from your 401(k) for up to 60 days without penalty, provided the funds are fully paid back within that time.

This means that you should only take money out of your IRA to start or fund a business if you know you can repay the capital in 60 days. If not, this might not be a wise choice, since you are effectively cashing out your IRA and subject to early withdrawal fees and taxes.

You are allowed to borrow money against your 401(k), and even though there are monthly interest payments (typically around 8%), the interest is repaid in the form of increased contributions to your retirement account. This is a good option if you need less than $50,000; if you need more, a ROBS becomes a much more cost-effective choice.

How 401(k) Business Funding Works

Employers make their own rules for how you can borrow against your account. Some employers limit loans to the contributions you’ve personally made into the plan, while others allow you to borrow against both your contributions and the matching contributions your employer has made. Each plan has its own rules that you must be aware of before attempting to borrow.

The IRS limits borrowing from your 401(k) account to the lesser of either $50,000 or half of your vested balance in your plan. The loan term is generally for a maximum of five years, and the interest charged is comparable to a traditional business loan (approximately 8%).

The IRS rules on 401(k) loans include:

  • Limited to $50,000 or half your vested balance

  • Loans limited to five-year terms

  • Interest rates are set by the administrator (comparable to five-year business loans)

  • Interest payments go back into your plan

In the event that your employment ceases while you still owe money on your 401(k) loan, you are still responsible for repaying the loan. You will have until the due date of your next federal tax return to repay the borrowed funds. If the funds have not been fully repaid by the time your federal taxes are due, the remaining amount owed will be treated as taxable income. Additionally, if you are under age 59½, you will also be charged a 10% early distribution penalty.

How Borrowing Against a Traditional IRA Works

Neither Traditional nor Roth IRAs allow loans like a 401(k) plan may. Both account types permit penalty-free distributions in some circumstances—such as paying for education—but there is currently no penalty-free distribution for starting or buying a small business.

You can withdraw funds from your 401(k) for up to 60 days without penalty. If you fail to pay the money back within that 60-day window, it will count as a distribution from your account and you will be taxed as if you cashed it out (gross income tax with a 10% penalty). Each IRA account only allows you to do this one time within a one-year period.

Who a 401(k) or IRA Loan Is Right For

Borrow against your 401(k) or IRA can be a good option if you are staying with your employer, you will not be a full-time employee of your startup, your business is earning passive income, or you need less than $50,000 in funding. Borrowing can also be best if you need cash now, and can repay in 60 days.

To best protect yourself from penalties and taxes, you will want to repay anything you take from an IRA within 60 days. The same goes for a 401(k) if you separate from your employer. The minute you separate from your employer or move your 401(k) funds, the loan will come due within 60 days.

Pros & Cons of Borrowing Against a 401(K) or IRA

Before borrowing against a 401(k) or IRA, there are some benefits and drawbacks to consider. Loans borrowed against your 401(k) are easier to get than traditional loans, have better terms, and have lower overall costs. However, you forfeit the investment interest if the funds were invested and owe extra taxes.

Some pros and cons to consider before borrowing against your 401(k) or IRA are:

Pros of Borrowing Against a 401(K) or IRA

The pros of borrowing against your 401(k) or IRA include:

  • Easy approval: Loans against your 401(k) do not require a credit check or extensive applications. This is an attractive option, especially if you have a low credit score.

  • Better terms and costs: Loans are available quickly and carry few restrictions on how you use the funds. Interest rates are typically lower than credit cards, and you get the added benefit of paying the interest to yourself instead of someone else.

Cons of Borrowing Against a 401(K) or IRA

Some of the cons of borrowing against your 401(k) or IRA include:

  • Opportunity costs: Once you borrow the money, it is no longer invested in financial markets and you cease earning interest on your funds. In addition, you also end up contributing less money to the account while repaying the loan, resulting in a lower balance available for retirement.

  • Extra taxes: The wages you use to repay the loan are taxed before you receive them, and then you pay additional taxes on the funds when you ultimately withdraw them for retirement.

3. Cash Out a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business

Cashing out your 401(k) is when you take a full or partial distribution to start or invest in a business. However, if you are under retirement age (59½), any non-qualifying distributions are assessed income tax and a 10% penalty. Qualifying distributions include things such as buying your first house or going back to school.

For this reason, cashing out your 401(k) or IRA to start a business should be your last option. Cashing out a 401(k) or IRA to start a business is only good if you are over age 59½ or will have plenty of other retirement savings left over. This is because your new business may not work out, but you may still need to pay taxes and penalties on the money you take from your retirement account.

How Cashing Out a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business Works

If you decide to cash out your 401(k) to start a business, you will need to request paperwork from your provider to start the process. Sometimes you can do this online or over the phone. Most of the time, you will need a sign-off from the company that set up your account.

Rules governing cashing out your 401(k) can be very restrictive. This can make the process overly complex and tedious. If you plan to cash out, you should expect delays because some plans restrict disbursements to once a quarter or once a year. Once you receive the funds less any fees, you will have to declare them as regular income for your taxes.

Who Cashing Out a 401(k) or IRA Is Right For

Cashing out your 401(k) or IRA to start a business is typically a last resort once you have tried all other options. You will lose out on your funds being in a tax-advantaged retirement account and lose any potential earnings on those funds. It is almost always the most expensive option.

However, there are two exceptions to this general rule, making cashing out a 401(k) the right business financing option. If you are already at least 59½ years old, or if you have a Roth IRA with a significant amount of contributions that have been in the plan for more than five years, then this may be your best option.

Requirements for Cashing Out a Traditional 401(k) or IRA

Cashing out your 401(k) before age 59½ can generate a lot of tax liability as well as penalties. Contributions made to 401(k) and IRA accounts are made from pretax income. Taxes are charged not in the year you contribute funds, but in the year you withdraw funds.

There are a few exceptions to the 10% penalty that you may qualify for in either a 401(k) or IRA cash out, but none of them is related to starting or buying a business.

The exceptions to the 10% penalty for cashing out your 401(k) include:

  • Qualified educational expenses

  • Certain medical expenses

  • Financial hardship as defined by the IRS

When you cash out your 401(k), you will have to pay both federal and state taxes on the amount you withdraw as gross income for the year. This could also adjust the tax bracket you fall into. When you withdraw funds, your plan administrator will typically withhold 20% of the funds and send it directly to the IRS to potentially cover your federal taxes.

On top of the taxes, you will also have to pay a 10% penalty for withdrawing the funds before retirement age (59½). That is a total of 30% in taxes and penalties right upfront, and you could end up losing more in state and federal taxes. So if you are cashing out $100,000 in funds, you will only get $70,000 immediately and may have some additional tax liabilities to pay off.

Requirements for Cashing Out a Roth IRA or 401(k)

Contributions to a Roth retirement account are taxed in the year the income is earned, and all withdrawals after you hit age 59½ are made without tax obligations as long as your plan is at least five years old. Cashing out your Roth IRA before that age will cost you a 10% penalty on all earnings within the plan, like the Traditional IRA.

Contributions made to a Roth IRA account can potentially be withdrawn at any time without paying taxes or penalties. For this to work, the contributions have to pass the five-year test, meaning the contributions qualify if they have been in the plan for over five years. However, the earnings within the plan cannot be taken out before age 59½ without paying taxes and penalties.

For example, if you put $20,000 into your IRA in 2017, then you will be able to withdraw that $20,000 tax- and penalty-free at the end of 2021, but any money that $20,000 has made is not eligible. Using a Roth IRA to start a business may be ideal if you have a large number of contributions that have been in your retirement plan for at least five years.

Pros & Cons of Cashing Out a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business

Cashing out your 401(k) may be a good option in certain circumstances. A major benefit is that you avoid the fees regularly charged to your account. You also have freedom in managing your funds. However, you will have to pay taxes and fees when you cash out, and timing can have a large effect.

The pros and cons of cashing out a 401(k) or IRA to start a business are:

Pros of Cashing Out a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business

The major pros of cashing out a 401(k) include:

  • Avoiding annual fees: Your retirement plan has management and administrative fees attached, which you can eliminate by cashing out.

  • You’re choosing your investment: Rather than choosing from the selected plans, you can invest your own money into a business that can potentially give you much higher returns.

Cons of Cashing Out a 401(k) or IRA to Start a Business

Some of the cons to cashing out a 401(k) are:

  • Paying penalties and taxes: When you cash out your 401(k), you will be assessed a fee as high as 10%. Furthermore, your 401(k) is treated as normal income, and will therefore be taxed at your income tax rate.

  • Missing out on market growth: Your retirement funds are invested in financial markets, and withdrawals during an economic downturn can cost you a large percentage of your money. You may also miss out on some market growth that happens shortly after the withdrawal.

3 Ways to Fund Your Business With a 401(k) or IRA

Using Retirement Funds With Startup Loans

While the current average 401(k) balance has never been higher, according to Fidelity, it is still just $92,500. This average amount may not be enough to start or buy the business you want. You may need additional financing to pay for your business.

You can generally combine your retirement savings with additional financing in two ways:

  1. As a down payment to qualify for other financing: If you are looking to get traditional financing, then you may be forced to put 10% to 20% down at closing. You may be able to use your retirement funds as your down payment so that you can get approved for the full financing to purchase your business.

  2. In combination with other financing: If you have a significant amount of money in your retirement account, but it is not enough to start your business, then you may want to use your retirement funds in combination with other financing. This can lower your total debt and monthly payments, which could give your business a higher chance to succeed than if you financed the full amount through other sources.

Just because you have money in an IRA or 401(k) does not mean that you cannot use those resources to help you start or buy a business. There are ways that you can use those funds to help fund your venture, but it is important to follow these rules to avoid paying undue taxes or penalties.

5 Startup Loans Used With Retirement Funds

Type of FinancingBest ForSBA LoanLarge business loans if you have good credit and time for the processHome Equity Line of CreditLow-interest financing if you have significant equity in your housePersonal LoanHigher-interest, short-term loansCredit CardMonth-to-month expenses or short-term financing on a 0% credit cardSeller FinancingBuyers who only need to borrow up to 30%–60% of the purchase price

The five common sources of financing used in combination with 401(k) business funding are:

SBA Loans

SBA loans are popular for existing businesses in need of working capital. They are also an option for startups looking to finance a business. SBA loans are difficult to qualify for, generally requiring prime credit, strong financials, and some collateral. For this reason, it is more challenging to get a startup SBA loan.

SBA loans are also among the cheapest loans you can get with lower interest rates (7% to 11%) and longer terms than other forms of financing. However, applying for an SBA loan is complicated, and SBA lenders will typically require a down payment of 20% to 30% of the total startup costs. Many people use their 401(k), IRA, or ROBS for their down payment for an SBA loan.

Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC)

A home equity line of credit uses the equity in your home to give you money for anything you need, including to fund your business. You can typically qualify if you have at least a 680 credit score and 20% to 30% equity in your home, and you can borrow up to 80% to 90% of total equity.

Personal Loans for Business

Personal loans for business come in many shapes and sizes. You can find personal loans at a traditional bank or at an online lender. Traditional banks will typically be cheaper, but they will be harder to qualify for and more time-consuming to get funded.

If you only need up to $35,000 of funding to start your business, then we recommend using a loan provider like Lending Club. You can also learn more about the ins and outs of using personal loans by reading our article on putting your personal money into your business.

Credit Cards

Business credit cards are often overlooked as a startup financing source, but they are typically easy to get. You can get approved within a few minutes, and, in many cases, start using your credit line immediately. Business credit cards for startups are typically used for financing needs under $20,000, and they carry APRs from 15% to 30%.

To learn more about the best business credit cards, check out our article on the best small business credit cards. To browse available credit cards and easily sort by features and rewards, use our Business Credit Card Marketplace to find the card that is best for you.

Seller Financing

With seller financing, the seller of a business is willing to lend a portion of the price to the buyer, and the buyer will typically pay between 30% and 60% of the asking price as a down payment. The seller will receive the remaining 70% to 40% as principal and interest payments over the life of the loan—typically five to seven years.

401(k) Business Funding Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In this article, we have done our best to detail your options for using a 401(k) to start a business. However, as with any type of financing, some questions are asked more frequently than others, and we have tried to address those here. If we have not answered your question, feel free to share it with us on the Fit Small Business forum and we will provide an answer.

Some of the most frequently asked questions about 401(k) business funding are:

What is a ROBS?

A ROBS, or rollover for business startup, is a form of financing that allows you to use your existing 401(k) to buy a business or start a new one that you intend to work in. A ROBS allows you to withdraw funds from your retirement account without paying taxes or early withdrawal penalties.

Can I borrow money from a self-directed IRA?

Like other IRAs, you typically cannot borrow against a self-directed IRA. However, you are allowed to withdraw for up to 60 days. As long as you replace the funds, then it is not a taxable distribution. However, there are some options if you want to use your IRA to invest in real estate.

Can a self-directed IRA invest in an LLC?

Some providers of self-directed IRAs allow you to have checkbook control, where you can invest in almost anything just by writing a check. This includes closely held companies like LLCs. However, you cannot typically invest IRAs in businesses like LLCs using traditional providers.

Can you take a loan from an IRA?

According to the IRS, you cannot technically borrow from or against your IRA. However, the IRS allows up to 60 days to complete IRA rollovers—so if you take money from your IRA and repay it within 60 days, it is considered a rollover rather than a distribution.

Can an IRA be used as collateral for a loan?

The IRS prohibits using an IRA/401(k) as collateral for a loan. Additionally, you cannot circumvent this prohibition by borrowing money from your IRA to use as collateral, as that is also prohibited. You can, however, use brokerage accounts as collateral. In some cases, you may also be able to get a margin loan.

Bottom Line

Whether or not using your 401(k) to start or buy a business is a good option depends on your situation. Cashing out your IRA could work for your startup if you are currently in the lowest tax bracket. Borrowing against your retirement account could also work if you can repay the funds in 60 days.

Our recommended solution for using your 401(k) to start a business is a rollover for business startups (ROBS). With a ROBS, you can fund your new business without paying taxes or penalties. To do it correctly, you need to use an experienced ROBS provider like Guidant, which will give you a free consultation.

Brad Tippett