Following the rash of home equity loans that Americans regretfully took out over the past few years on their first or second mortgages – essentially turning their homes into ATM machines, as many a critic has quipped – their 401(k)s are now in danger of becoming the next get-cash-quick scheme, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Americans are increasingly turning to their 401(k), IRA or insurance savings for some ready cash. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance Poll has discovered that about 25% of people planning for retirement have already taken out money from their savings either through a loan or a hardship withdrawal, usually because of a job loss or to put a down payment on a house. And of these people, about a third are unable to pay the money back.

Indeed, Vanguard reports that hardship withdrawals rose 8.6% last year, spiking 22% in December alone. At Fidelity, they rose 16% in the first quarter.

As Tim Johnson, an investment strategist with Lincoln Financial Advisors, put it: “There is no ATM without consequences.”

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