I'm not a big fan of debt, especially if you're already swimming in it. Debt is something that should be used very carefully and strategically. A home mortgage is fine if you're in a house you can afford and you're able to make payments on time. Credit cards can provide you a short-term line of credit, but are only advisable if you use them sparingly and pay them off quickly.
But what if you're in dire straits and need cash fast? Cash advance stores or payday loans are one of the absolute worst options you can turn to. An auto title loan is almost as bad. So where do you turn for a loan that might help you through the hard times?
There are a few options, some better than the others. Balance transfers from a credit card can work out okay, but you need to be careful. First, read the fine print about the rate and the fee to do the transfer. Then don't use that credit card for new purchases -- wait until you've paid off the balance transfer first. Any payments you make go to the charges at the lower rate, so if you make purchases with the card, your payment goes toward the low interest balance transfer first and your purchases rack up interest at a higher rate.
Borrowing against home equity is an option, but homeowners have to be careful because declining home values can make this a bad deal. You don't want to end up owing the bank more than the home is worth. A home equity loan should probably be one of your last options, as you want to preserve as much of your equity as possible.
Peer-to-peer lending is becoming a more common option as websites focused exclusively on this lending opportunity keep popping up. Basically, people with money to lend participate on these sites, looking for good borrowers. The site is the middleman who hooks up the borrowers and lenders. While this is one opportunity to borrow money, don't expect the process to be easy. The lenders want to protect their money and will want to know about your credit history and your plans for the money.
Borrowing money from your retirement fund can be a decent option, but you have to remember that you must pay the money back with interest, or face significant taxes on the money taken out of the fund. There is some risk to borrowing from the retirement fund, though. If you change jobs or your company closes, you may be required to pay back your loan immediately.
It seems that consumers are more irresponsible about borrowing than ever before. Everyone figures they can play with the money today and pay it back much later. During those times when credit is necessary to continue to feed your family or get to work, be as careful as possible and look around for the best (not necessarily the easiest) money option.
Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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