A lot of Americans are looking at the short-term when it comes to their retirement plan balances. Thirty percent of investors who faced a choice about their plan balances, either because of leaving a job or retiring, said they took a cash payment, according to a recent study by Putnam Investments of Boston.

Because they do not exercise other options, such as rolling over the money to another employer's plan or to an individual retirement account, American investors pay between $7.1 billion and $8.3 billion in federal taxes and penalties a year unnecessarily, according to Putnam. Investors who take early cash payments from 401(k) plans have to pay between 15 percent and 39.6 percent in federal taxes, in addition to 10 percent penalties if they are under 55, the company said.

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