debt

Hard times call for hard money choices

When to borrow

If you have to borrow money, a home-equity loan is often the best choice. The interest payments are tax-deductible.

"If you need to make repairs to your house, for example, this is an appropriate source of funds," Eisenberg says. "If your kids are in college and they have a semester or two to go, and you want them to finish that education, I can see using a home-equity loan. Not for all four years of college; that doesn't make sense, but for short-term, major expenditures.  Don't use it for vacations or buying sprees."

But home-equity loans can be hard to get in the credit crunch, and they're almost impossible to find if you're unemployed. What's more, property values have plummeted, and you don't want to tap the diminishing equity in your home if you don't have to. If you sell your home later, before paying off the loan, you'll pocket less of the proceeds because a larger chunk is going to your lender.

Some financial advisers prefer other options. For one, see if your life insurance policy has a cash value. Many "whole" or "universal" life policies, as opposed to "term" life insurance, invest a portion of your premium payments in a separate tax-deferred account. It builds value over time so that some benefits can be paid out before your death as well as after, says Stacy Francis, a financial planner in New York.

"It's your money, it's in cash and there are usually no penalties for tapping into it," Francis says.

But there are two caveats about tapping life insurance:

1. Any cash you withdraw will reduce your after-death payout to heirs. It's not always a dollar-for-dollar formula, either. In some cases, you could be reducing your death benefit by more than the amount you withdraw. Policies vary, so check with your provider before taking out funds.

2. Don't access the cash value of your life insurance by taking out a loan against it.  Often policies offer loans at a lower rate of interest than banks with the cash value of your policy serving as collateral. Nevertheless, you are paying interest, which makes anything you purchase with the funds that much more costly. In some cases, the loan plus interest can be deducted from your death benefit rather than paid back in your lifetime.  This may seem tempting, but again, it diminishes what you leave your heirs, says Eleanor Blayney, a consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in Washington, D.C.

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Asking loved ones

Another choice is to ask friends or family for money. Doubtless this will entail emotional strings, yet that's no reason to avoid it. "I certainly would hope my child would come to me before doing something foolish," Blayney says.

 

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