Madeline Noveck, CFP
Suppose life throws you a curve ball and you need money fast. Where can you get the cash? Options -- and traps to watch out for...
LOW OR NO COST
1. Ask your employer for an advance. The terms may be informal or written as a promissory note. This option works best when the need for immediate cash is very small and the boss is approachable.
2. Borrow from your relatives. This quick fix comes with emotional potholes. If you don’t repay the money, there may be resentment from the lender, as well as from other relatives who may feel slighted or jealous.
What to do: Use a formal promissory note stating the interest rate and repayment terms.
Trap: Without such a written note, the IRS may bar the lender from writing off a bad loan on grounds that it was a gift.
Caution: Such a loan doesn’t have to bear interest. But if it does, the lender must report that interest as income. If the loan exceeds $10,000, and the interest is below the applicable federal rate (AFR) -- currently just under 5% -- the lender must report not only the actual interest, if any, but also the “imputed interest,” which is the difference between the actual interest and the AFR.
More information: At the IRS Web site, www.irs.gov, type “applicable federal rate” into the search box.
3. Borrow from your 401(k). If your plan allows it, under federal law, you can borrow up to 50% of your vested account balance or $50,000, whichever is less. You usually have up to five years to repay the loan.
Advantages: You can’t be rejected for the loan -- you may only need to make a phone call to the plan administrator or complete a short loan form... the interest rate, set by the plan, will be relatively low -- usually a couple of points above the prime rate, currently 8.25% (this is low compared with credit card rates, which can be up to 25%). The interest you pay goes back into the account.
Disadvantages: The money borrowed diminishes what could be saved for retirement... if you leave the company before repaying the loan, you must pay it back -- any outstanding balance will otherwise be treated as a taxable distribution (and subject to a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½).
4. Tap your IRA. Pledging an IRA as collateral for a loan or “borrowing” from it is treated as a taxable distribution (subject to a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½). But you can use money from your IRA for 60 days, tax and penalty free.
Big danger: You must replace (redeposit) the money in any of your IRA accounts within 60 days, or pay tax on it. Whatever isn’t put back becomes taxable as ordinary income.
Caution: You can make only one such withdrawal/redeposit, called a rollover, within a one-year period.
5. Borrow against your life insurance policy. If you have a cash-value life insurance policy (whole or universal life), you can borrow against the amount accumulated in your account. Just call your insurance agent or insurance company to receive a check within 48 hours to two weeks.
Borrowing limit: The cash value in the policy.
In today’s market, the annual interest rate on such a loan is about 7%, but many companies will reduce the dividends they credit to your account for as long as you have the loan -- in effect, upping the interest rate. Usually, you can repay funds when and to the extent you choose, but if payments don’t at least cover interest, the cash value of your policy continues to be further depleted because the interest not paid is subtracted from the cash value.
6. Use a margin account. Margin borrowing allows you to leverage securities you hold at a brokerage firm to access a convenient line of credit -- using checks issued by the firm to access your line or by receiving a broker’s check (often the same day you ask for it). You can even have the funds wired to your bank account. All you need to do for this kind of borrowing is sign a margin account agreement.
Limit: 50% of the current market value of a stock... 90% for Treasury and agency bonds... 70% for corporate bonds... and 60% for municipal bonds. Some securities (e.g., equities trading below $3 a share) are excluded.
Interest rates, which are based on the broker call rate (the broker’s cost of money), vary and the more you borrow, the lower the interest rate.
Example: Fidelity’s rate for borrowing less than $10,000 is currently 11.075%, but borrowing $500,000 or more has a 6% rate.
Note: Interest on margin accounts may be tax deductible as investment interest by those who itemize deductions. You must use the money to buy or carry investments, and you must have investment income at least equal to the investment interest. You must also not be borrowing against tax-exempt securities.
Caution: If the value of the securities falls below a certain level while your loan is outstanding, you’ll get a margin call -- a demand from a broker to provide money or securities to bring the value of the account back to the required level. You’ll have to sell some of your holdings to cover the shortfall if you don’t find other money to pay down the margin debt.
7. Get a home-equity line of credit (HELOC). Your bank will approve you for a specific amount of credit. Many lenders set the limit on a HELOC by taking a percentage of a home’s appraised value and subtracting the balance on the existing mortgage, if any. The process can take a week or more to arrange, but once the line is in place, you can write checks against it.
HELOCs typically use variable interest rates based on the prime rate (current HELOC rates are around 7.5%). Look for a lender that will waive all costs of establishing the loan, such as an application fee, an appraisal fee and closing costs.
8. Take a cash advance from a credit card. Drawbacks: Very high interest rates -- rates for advances typically range from 20% to 25%, in contrast to the average rate on credit card purchases of around 16% to 17%. In addition, cash advances usually carry an up-front fee of 2% to 4% of the amount advanced.
9. Borrow from a pawnshop. Pawnshops are in the business of making short-term, small-money loans, with personal items used as collateral. A pawnbroker will appraise your jewelry, small appliances, musical instruments or other items and typically lend 50% of the retail value. Interest rates and fees for these loans are state regulated, but the term of the loan is usually 30 days to several months and the fees are generally high.
Example: New York pawnbrokers have a collateral loan period of four months, and the interest rate is 4% a month, which means an annual percentage rate (APR) of 48%. There may also be a service charge -- the maximum charge for loans between $50 and $100 is $3 (loans above $100 are $5). If you don’t pay back on time, your collateral can be sold.
10. Take a “payday” loan. If your employer won’t give you a wage advance, consider a payday or “fast cash” loan.
These loans (offered at payday loan stores and at such sites as www.wegivecash.com, www.ordercashnow.com and www.credit.com) are popular because they’re easy and quick to arrange -- you can get funds in as little as one hour.
These loans don’t require a credit check -- they’re based on just a few criteria, such as the applicant’s monthly wages (usually a minimum of $1,000). The maximum loan amount is between $500 and $1,500, and the loans are for short periods, usually one to four weeks.
These loans are pricey -- finance costs (fees) run from $25 to $45, regardless of the size of the loan. Sounds reasonable? It’s not. Charging $45 for a two-week loan is the equivalent of $1,170 for a year. If you borrowed $300, that’s an APR of 390%!