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The 7 smartest ways to borrow

Need some extra cash? Here are the lowest-cost ways to find it.

By Stacy Johnson Sep 24, 2012 1:58PM

This post comes from Renee Morad at partner site Money Talks News.

Logo Money Talks News on MSN MoneyThere are a couple of situations when borrowing money is appropriate. One, when it's profitable: You earn more with the borrowed money than you pay in interest. Two, when your back’s against the wall and you simply don’t have a choice.

 Woman using calculator on desk full of bills and statements © Sheer Photo, Inc/Photodisc/Getty ImagesLast week, we warned you about the dumbest ways to borrow money (hint: some payday loans charge nearly 400% interest rates if compounded annually). Today, we explore some smarter ways to borrow. 


1. Zero percent credit cards

Back in February, we mentioned that credit cards with zero percent interest rates and no-fee balance transfers were making a comeback. Just this month, credit cards with zero rates are again making headlines. These cards offer “teaser rate” incentives with grace periods from six to 18 months.


These promotions are typically for purchases or balance transfers only, not cash advances. After the card’s zero annual percentage rate period expires, interest rates can be as high as 25%. So while the zero percent is by definition the lowest rate you can get, these credit cards are short-term solutions.

2. Mortgages

A second mortgage or home equity line of credit allows you to borrow longer term, is potentially deductible and offers rates as low as 4%.

As the name implies, a second mortgage resembles a traditional first mortgage: You borrow a fixed amount, often at a fixed rate, and have a level monthly payment until it's fully paid. A home equity line of credit acts more like a credit card: You're approved for a certain amount and draw on it as needed. Like a credit card, the interest rate is generally variable, and your payment is based on the amount outstanding.

Second mortgages are generally the way to go when you have a large lump-sum expense, like a major addition to your home or college tuition. A line of credit would be more appropriate when you won't need all the money at once, or may need to borrow some, pay it back, then borrow more.

In either case, be sure to read the fine print, focusing on rate and fees, and do lots of comparison shopping. And don't ever use this type of loan to support a lifestyle you can't afford. There's a popular warning among those in the credit-counseling business about home equity lines of credit: "Buy a blouse, lose a house." 

3. Margin loans

Margin loans use securities like stocks and bonds as collateral. They allow you to put up only half the purchase price when you buy stocks, or borrow up to half of your stock's value whenever you'd like. Retirement accounts, however, aren't eligible.

Rates vary by company and the size of the loan. Online brokerage firm Scottrade's range, for example, is 5.25% for loans more than $1 million to 7.75% for loans less than $1,000.

As long as you earn more than you pay in interest, a margin loan will be profitable. The big risk comes when your margined securities drop in value, resulting in the infamous "margin call." Should your stocks fall by a certain amount, the brokerage firm calls you for more money. Fail to cough it up immediately and they'll liquidate enough shares to get it. 

To better understand margin investing, check out this page of

4. 401k loans

If you have a retirement plan, you might be able to borrow from it. Employers are allowed to restrict lending criteria, or not offer loans at all. Limits vary, but you can generally borrow up to half of your account balance, with a maximum of $50,000.

Rates can be low, and the best part is that you’re paying interest to yourself, essentially taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other.

Big caveat when it comes to these types of loans: If you quit your job or get laid off, you’ll have to repay it in full, usually within 60 days. If you can't, you'll owe income taxes on the entire amount, as well as a 10% penalty.  

5. Borrowing from family or friends

Enlisting help from family or friends can be one of the worst ways to borrow money. In fact, we said so just last week in our list of The 7 Dumbest Ways to Borrow Money. However, this can also be a smart way to borrow -- if the circumstances are right and proper precautions are taken.

To make sure everyone's on the same page, draft a legal document specifying rates, terms and due date. You can find the necessary forms cheap or free at any number of legal-information websites; just do a search for "promissory note."

Perhaps more than any other type of loan, this type requires on-time payments and a complete understanding between the parties. Nobody likes seeing friends or family spending on things like vacations or luxury items when they still owe you money.

6. Peer-to-peer lending

In a recent post, we explained how peer-to-peer lending offers an opportunity as an investment. It might also be a good way to find lower-rate loans.

Borrowers can search for a lender on sites like Lending Club or Prosper. The rate of interest you'll pay will depend on your credit -- if your credit score is very low, you may not be able to borrow this way at all.  But if you've got a good credit score and need a small, short-term loan, peer-to-peer can beat the banks.

7. Credit unions

Credit unions offer flexible lending and lower rates than banks. As we explained in Credit Unions: Better for College Students -- and Many Others, the average credit union rate on a car loan is 1.5 to 2 percentage points lower than at a bank, and home equity lines of credit average about half a percentage point lower, according to DataTrac.

Credit unions might also offer signature loans -- an unsecured loan guaranteed only by your signature. Obviously, you'll need membership and good credit, but this can be a good source of short-term cash.

Bottom line? There's no one-fits-all solution when it comes to borrowing money, and the less you do it the better. But if you're going to borrow, at least these options could result in lower costs and a faster payback. 

More on Money Talks News and MSN Money


Sep 25, 2012 5:41PM

I'd never put borrowing from a 401k on the smart list.  Never.  If you have one and have not established an emergency fund to insulate your 401k, you are flirting with danger. Immediate repayment and nasty tax consequences can result - start an emergency fund now.

Sep 25, 2012 3:30PM
the borrow from  family and friends is on both the smartest and dumbest. So I guess only borrow form them if you hate them and know you cant pay them back.
Oct 3, 2012 2:13PM
Sep 25, 2012 12:53PM
Elementary advice and the margin idea is crazy.
Oct 3, 2012 2:24PM
There is a positive of borrowing from your 401k. After I got divorced, I took money out of my 401K to pay off joint credit card debit. It made sense rather than paying a high interest rate. I am in my late 20s, so retirement is quite a ways away. I paid off all my debt and was no longer tied financially to my ex-husband. Once I was on my feet, I stayed out of debt and started contributing more to my 401k again. 
Oct 3, 2012 3:51PM
"2. Mortgages

A second mortgage or home equity line of credit allows you to borrow longer term, is potentially deductible and offers rates as low as 4%."



Real bad advise. Most of the people who lost their home to foreclosure, had second mortgages. My advise if you don't have the money, don't buy it. Even if it hurts your life style.

Oct 3, 2012 2:54PM

I have borrowed from my 401K usually in small amounts (3K-5K). I usually pay it back within a year or less. The most I borrowed was 8K for my home purchase. That was  paid back in like 8 months or so. I used to (and still do at times) feel jittery about borrowing against my 401K but Iike one poster said I am young and retirement is a while away.  I also look at it like this: If another financial crisi****, I can lose all my money without ever having accessed it. so borrowing isnt all that bad because your 401K isnt gauranteed to be there..barring any financial conditions.



That being said, I also started saving again (most of my savings and more went into home purchase). Now that I am getting back on my feet I am planning to save again. I have 2.8K left to pay back and as soon as I get my tax refund, it will.


Other than that, I dont like to borrow from credit cards (I keep a zero balance) and I certainly dont like to ask friends/family for money. Id rather ask for resources. In other words if I lost my job, I wouldnt ask for money to pay my mortgage, I would rent out my place and ask mom/dad or family for a room to crash in until I got back on my feet. Its easier on them not to shell out $$$.

Oct 3, 2012 1:39PM
Suzie Orman would never agree with borrowing from 401K.  Bad idea.
Oct 3, 2012 4:49PM

Never buy stocks on margin.  That's what created the Roaring Twenties balloon, & you know how that worked out.

When someone tells you your credit score entitles you to a loan far in excess of what you can comfortably repay, you're about to be robbed.  See the Great Subprime Mortgage Scam.

When you use a credit card you're not spending money, you're not managing money, & you're certainly not saving money; you're borrowing money.  Do you really want to be in debt to them?

Apr 13, 2013 9:27AM
Real bad advise. Most of the people who lost their home to foreclosure, had second mortgages. My advise if you don't have the money, don't buy it. Even if it hurts your life style.

Adam G
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