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'Converting your pension into a granite countertop'

University of Michigan economist Frank P. Stafford says we spent on "layoffs, unexpected medical expenses." But, some retirement raids were for more frivolous things.

It's becoming harder and harder for consumers to get loans. So they're turning to another money source -- their retirement accounts.

During good times, we contribute to our retirement plans. In bad times, we raid them. The Great Recession threw the raiding into high gear. Many people used their retirement money to stave off disaster.

University of Michigan economist Frank P. Stafford says we spent on "layoffs, unexpected medical expenses." But, some retirement raids were for things like home makeovers:

"Converting your pension into a granite countertop," says Stafford.

The thing is, if you take money out of your retirement plan before age 59 and a half, you pay a 10 percent penalty.

Yet, Stafford says, 5 to 6 percent of us have done that over the past two years.

You can avoid the penalty by just borrowing against your retirement accounts. Plenty of us did so in 2012.

"Basically one out of five employees over the one year period take loans out of their 401k plan and have an outstanding balance," says Joe Ready, the head of institutional retirement at Wells Fargo.

Ready says there is a little good news. Those loans have plateaued, and more people are contributing to their retirement plans.

Retirement Breach In Defined Contribution Plans (from HelloWallet)

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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