A reader recently wrote in with the following inquiry:
I am looking to pay off a student loan of just under $22,000 and saw that I can borrow from my IRA to pay for school without incurring the added 10% tax penalty, would this also apply to paying off a student loan? This is a private loan not federal and my rate is around 10%, it’s adjustable. What do you think I should and can do?
The ability to use IRA funds to pay for Qualified Higher Education Expenses (QHEEs) without incurring the 10% penalty is described in Chapter 9 of IRS Publication 970. As far as I can tell, the Qualified Higher Education Expenses don’t include student loan repayment. Rather, qualified expenses include things like tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, equipment, and room and board. Based on that, it seems that you can’t use IRA funds to pay off your student loans (at least not without incurring the 10% penalty).
The one obvious exception to this is Roth IRA contributions (but not earnings), which can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, without penalty. Note that I’m not saying this is a good idea, I’m just saying that it’s possible.
Also, just to clarify something from the original question… You’re not really “borrowing” when you take a qualified distribution. You’re making a withdrawal, and the only way you can put the money back in (short of sticking the money back in within 60 days) is by making regular contributions, which are subject to annual limits as well as income restrictions.
Of course, I’m not a tax expert, so it might be a good idea to run this stuff past a pro before acting on it.
This article is part of my Money Q&A Series.