Over the last two years interest rates have fallen sharply but, for many consumers it has been a moot point. With tighter lending standards and rules, fewer consumers have been taking out bank loans.
But if you are still paying off credit card debt at 15 percent or higher, some personal finance experts think it might make sense to take a loan from yourself, borrowing from your 401(k) retirement account.
In the past this practice was highly frowned upon. After all, the money in that account is working for you on a tax deferred basis, accelerating its growth. You should be putting more money in, they argued, not taking it out.
The law allows a loan against a 401(k) account but does not require your employer to provide one. Some small companies are not in the position to administer these loans and may not allow then. Checking your company's policy is the first step.
Although plans differ, you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k) account of up to 50 percent of what you have paid in so far. To some it's appealing because there's no banker to please, no credit check or jumping through hoops.
Low rates are appealing
Also, the interest rate on a 401(k) loan can be quite low, and this is likely the main reason some financial experts are beginning to change their view. If you have a balance on your credit card with an interest rate of 14.5 percent and you can pay it off with a 401(k) loan at 4.5 percent, in many ways you're ahead.
But in some ways, you aren't. While you have five years to pay back the loan -- usually through a payroll deduction -- some plans don't allow you to make new contributions to the account until you fully pay off the loan. If you take the full five years to repay your loan, you're missing five years of tax-deferred contributions.
What if you aren't able to repay the loan? If there is a strong risk of that, then it might be better to pass on a 401(k) loan and take your chances with the bank.
Job security is a key issue
If you quit your job, or get fired before you repay the loan, you have 60 days to repay the loan in full. If you can't manage that, then it's classified as a 401(k) withdrawal.
If you are over the age of 59 1/2, it is less of a problem because you are allowed to take distributions after that age. However, the unpaid loan balance will be taxed as regular income. Depending on your bracket, it can be a big bite.
If you haven't reached age 59 1/2, the unpaid balance is classified as an early withdrawal. Besides paying the tax, you have to pay an extra 10 percent penalty.
Taking out a loan against your retirement account probably boils down to your individual situation. It's a good idea to discuss the matter with your tax or financial adviser before acting.