You can't cash out your 401k unless you are no longer employed there. If you have already left there, you can move it tax free to an IRA account. You can now invest in many more securities than you had access to with your 401k and it's treated like a 401k. With some IRAs you can invest in gold or real estate that you manage yourself. You can be the manager or hire someone else, just like a 401k does. Most of the companies that do 401ks will be happy to set it up and it's pretty painless. So the way I see it, the only way you should be in a 401k is if you have to because you are still with the employer that set it up.
If you are at a different emloyer, you can cash out. You have to pay income tax when you take it out. If you are under age, I think 59.5, then you also have to pay a 10 percent penalty. The taxes are a wash so the question becomes do you give up 10 percent of what will be worth less in the future to have it right now? With inflation as it is, you might be better off paying the penalty and investing it into something else that will hold its value or create enough cash flow to beat the inflation. Will a bankrupt govt go after the 401ks? This is another risk that looks more likely every day.
By the way, after considering all this, I cashed mine out. In fact, being able to secure my 401k funds had some major weight in my decision to leave my job of 17 years. The penalty was hard to swallow but a 90% bird in my hand seemed to be more prudent than a 100% bird in some banker's bush. I'm investing in farming and putting in a greenhouse to raise food all year and alternative energy systems (my two biggest expenses besides property taxes). So far, my decision has been the right one.
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