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Can you access retirement funds early?

Well, sure. It's your money. But unless you're at least 59 1/2 you'll likely pay a penalty of 10% (on top of the taxes you'll pay on a distribution that will be treated as ordinary income). So this is really a hard case situation.

But there are exceptions. If your retirement savings are in a 401(k), 457, 403(b), or other employer-sponsored plan, you can withdraw from the plan after age 55 if you are no longer working for the employer who sponsored the plan.

With an IRA, there are a few more exceptions. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 toward a first-time home purchase without triggering the penalty, or any amount to pay for qualified higher education expenses.

And with a Roth IRA, you're free to withdraw your original contributions (but not any investment profits) at any time, and for any reason.

With any retirement account, you can withdraw money to cover medical expenses in excess of 10% of your adjusted gross income, or in the event that you become disabled. Or you can start withdrawing from your retirement savings early if you agree to take a series of "substantially equal" payments.

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