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Vanguard says the median 401(ok) withdrawal was $12,000 amid coronavirus

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Retirement savers appear to be taking advantage of relaxed rules around 401(k) withdrawals during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 401(k) investors pulled $12,000 from their account in the form of a “coronavirus-related distribution,” according to a new Vanguard analysis of its client data.

This figure represents the median withdrawal — in other words, the amount right in the middle of all withdrawal amounts.

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Coronavirus-related distributions are a new type of retirement withdrawal, enacted in March by the federal CARES Act to help cash-strapped individuals during the economic downturn.

About 4.5% of Vanguard 401(k) investors took a coronavirus distribution between March and September, indicating that few participants used the remedy, the Vanguard analysis said.

However, it equates to almost 187,000 investors, according to a CNBC analysis of Vanguard data published over the summer, which indicated that a coronavirus distribution was available to about 4.2 million 401(k) customers.

It’s also more than double the withdrawal rate through the end of May, when fewer than 2% of Vanguard 401(k) investors had used the withdrawal mechanism, according to company data.

This suggests more people have turned to this CARES Act safety valve as the recession has dragged on and other temporary financial relief measures provided by the law, like one-time stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits, have ended.

The CARES Act allowed investors to withdraw up to $100,000 from 401(k) plans, individual retirement accounts and other account types, through Dec. 30 in the form of a coronavirus-related distribution. Investors don’t have to pay a tax penalty for withdrawing retirement funds early and get some flexibility around paying income taxes.  

The typical amount withdrawn has increased slightly since May, to $12,000 from about $10,400.

In May, the typical investor withdrew more than half their 401(k) savings in the form of a coronavirus distribution, according to an earlier Vanguard analysis.

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Katherine Clark