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More Americans raiding 401(k)s to pay the bills

One in four Americans is raiding their meager retirement savings to pay their monthly bills, according to a new study.

When Amy Shankland's husband, John, was laid off from his job, they tapped into their IRAs to get by. With credit card debt, big medical expenses, two young sons, the Shanklands had few options.

"We didn't know what to do. It was either bankruptcy or cash in our IRAs," Amy Shankland told NBC News.

The Shanklands are not alone. Americans are borrowing against their 401(k) to pay for non-retirement needs such as mortgages, credit card debt or college tuition, according to a new study from financial advisory firm HelloWallet. That amounts for more than $70 billion in annual withdrawals.

Financial experts say it's a troubling trend.

"If they cannot pay their bills while they have a paycheck coming in, how do they think they're going to pay those exact same bills later on in life when they no longer have a paycheck coming in?" said Suze Orman, host of CNBC's "The Suze Orman Show." "It makes no sense in any circumstance to take a loan from a 401(k)."

Such loans often come with penalties, additional taxes and lost interest -- making retirement goals that much harder to reach. 

New research from the AARP also shows that those ages 50 and over are carrying higher balances on their credit cards -- $8,278 in 2012 compared to $6,258 for the under-50 population.  That debt makes it more likely they'll borrow against their 401(k).

Financial experts recommend an emergency fund equal to three months of your salary. Experts also advise that at age 35, you should have at least a year's salary in your 401(k) or IRA. By age 45, three years' salary. And by retirement at age 67, you should have at least eight times your salary socked away.

Six years after tapping out their IRAs, the Shanklands are both working -- and once again saving for their golden years. 

"We've worked very hard to get to where we are today," said Amy Shankland.