Q: I'm 57 years old, and my oldest child is about to start college. Can I tap into my 401(k) to help pay for tuition without paying a penalty?
While an IRA allows the owner to withdraw money penalty-free at any time to help pay for college, 401(k)s and similar retirement plans don't have this feature. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't use yours.
Specifically, there are two ways you might be able to use your 401(k) funds to pay for college without penalty. First, unlike an IRA, you can usually borrow money from your 401(k). Most plans allow for loans of up to $50,000, and the interest rate you'll pay is likely to be far lower than you'll get from a parent student loan -- plus you'll be paying yourself the money and building your retirement fund back up.
Alternatively, you said that you're 57. That still puts you below the standard withdrawal age of 59 1/2, but there's a special provision that allows you to withdraw from your account penalty-free after 55 if you are no longer working for the sponsoring employer. In other words, if you have an old 401(k) from a previous employer, you can use it without a penalty at your age. It's important to realize that if you withdraw money under this rule, it won't be penalized but it will be considered taxable income.
So while you can't withdraw from your account penalty-free specifically for college purposes, there are still ways you can potentially use your 401(k) savings to help cover the costs.