I have a reasonably comfortable emergency fund, some other savings, and some accounts I manage myself invested in stocks and funds. However I have only a minimal sum in pensions and retirement accounts.
I have noticed that these accounts often provide significant advantage including getting contributions from employers and advantageous tax treatment. However they also seem to almost always carry substantial penalties in the case of early withdrawal with certain exceptions.
I find myself greatly struggling to make myself put any money into these kinds of accounts due to the fear of these penalties, in case at some point in the future I need this money early. I tend to feel the money will be "locked away" and not real or accessible to me if I should need it.
Note I do not have trouble with spending too much, do not make sudden or large purchases and have little to no debt (have some credit cards for convenience but pay them off several times a month and never carry balance), and I save carefully a reasonable amount each month, living as frugally as I am reasonably able.
At some point in the future when I have sufficient savings I plan to buy a house, but am not entire clear when or how much that will cost. I also have various other somewhat unpredictable medical expenses that occur intermittently.
I am curious, is there a real issue behind my thinking here, that retirement accounts are indeed dangerous as if the money is needed suddenly the penalties could result in losses or at least poor gains? And if not, what would be the best way of working past the fear of having the money "locked away" in case it's needed as I realize I am paying significant capital gains and dividend taxes on these savings currently?