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When Financial Cheating Hurts Your Retirement Plan

With counseling and professional financial guidance, couples can avoid cascading failures that can completely derail retirement planning. One move he often sees spouses employ doesn’t end up being a solution.

“For example, it is common to see 401(k) loans — or complete withdrawals, especially during the Covid period — to try to Band-Aid the situation,” he said. “The problem with 401(k) loans is that you have now stolen from your future to pay a past debt. The worst case is then if you lose your job, the 401(k) loan becomes immediately due; otherwise, it gets taxed.” The taxes would be in addition to a potential 10 percent penalty, which the I.R.S. applies to people making withdrawals before age 59.5 — except under certain circumstances.

Ms. Matthews, who is also a certified divorce financial analyst, advises clients to start with the fundamentals when addressing financial infidelity. “What does your income look like relative to your debts, also known as a debt-to-income ratio?” she said. She urges clients to engage in goal modification, or revising financial expectations.

The lower your debts relative to your income, the better your prospects for recovery. For credit card debt, she suggests paying off the highest-interest debt first, “so you don’t get further down that hole.”

It’s only after you clear your debts, Dr. Zigmont says, that you can think about saving for retirement.

Still, the recovery process and resulting decisions, Ms. Matthews said, are difficult. “Can you afford to stay in your present home without negatively impacting your ability to retire? Sometimes you have to downsize your house, or you may have to work longer,” she said. “You have to look at scenarios that are the least disruptive.” Your entire vision for your retirement might have to change, she said.

Most qualified financial planners will put you through the paces of getting your spending aligned with your income, saving for short-term goals like college financing and, eventually, retirement savings. One essential note in rebuilding your retirement plan: Take full advantage of tax-deferred compounding in retirement plans.

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