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3 Mistakes to Avoid When Trying to Pay Off Debt


Many people owe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, simply because they bought too much stuff! You may be in a place where your top priority is to pay off debt. While that is a noble and wise ambition, you have to be careful that you do not go about it in the wrong way.

3 Potential Mistakes To Avoid When Trying To Pay Off Debt

These three strategies may seem like a great idea at the time, but they can backfire in a hurry and can end up being huge financial mistakes.

Tap Into Your 401k

Many 401k plans will allow you to borrow from them. I have had a lot of people tell me that borrowing from their 401k was a good idea because they would just be “borrowing from themselves”. That type of thinking has many people taking out tens of thousands of dollars out of their 401k’s in order to pay off debt, or simply buy some expensive new toy (or house). They justify it by claiming that since they only borrowed from themselves, they are just paying themselves back with interest.

This may seem like a good idea at first, but their are a couple of things to consider before making this move. First, your 401k is for retirement! The point of these accounts is for you to deposit money (up to the annual 401k contribution limits) into particular funds, and give them time to grow. Time is the most important factor when it comes to investing. You may have heard the phrase, “it’s not timing the market, it’s time in the market”, which speaks to this point.

When you borrow money, you remove that balance from your retirement account, and it fails to earn interest. Imagine trying to build a huge snowball by rolling it down a hill in the snow. A little bit of snow will stick to it at first, then you pack on more snow (through additional payroll withdrawals), and it gets larger. Then it is able to cause more snow to stick to it as it rolls, this process repeats over time. You may hit a couple of flat sections in the hill, or deal with the sun coming out and melting a part of your ball; but if you stay consistent, you’ll soon have a massive snowball that is hard to stop!

40 years of creating a huge snowball would probably allow you to have provision all throughout retirement – if you allow the snow to melt slowly, giving you “water” as you need it (just be sure to choose the right withdrawal rate)! Now imagine that you want to pay off debt, and you decide to stop focusing on creating a snowball, in order to put your efforts into putting out your debt fire (I’m just full of analogies today). You have 3 choices in relation to your 401k (the snowball ;)). First, you can choose not to make any changes to your contribution levels. Next, you can allow the snowball to move down the hill with less help or no help at all (by reducing or completely removing the amount you contribute). The last option is to take out a blowtorch, melt down the huge snowball, and use the water to put out some of the fire!

You shouldn’t try to comfort yourself in the fact that as you put the snow back into place, that it’s all going toward your snowball. But instead, you should be angry at all of the growth that you are missing out on, because you destroyed, or significantly reduced the size of, your snowball. For as long as our money is not in our retirement account, we miss out on all the gains on that money, as well as the added returns on those gains!

Also, many jobs (or plan administrators) will require that you pay back the loan in full within 60 or 90 days of leaving the job. If you are not able to pay back the loan within that time, then you will have to pay taxes on the amount not repaid, as well as a 10% early withdrawal penalty! With the economy in the middle of a decade-long downturn, and more employers depending on the contingent workforce, it is not a good idea to put yourself in a position to have to repay a five-figure debt if you lose your job!

My advice would be the same whether you are talking about a current IRA or 401k, or even a retirement account from a former job.

Of course, there are times where it is best to take out a loan, but only in extreme cases. You should try to find ways to reduce your expenses, bring in more income, and seriously change your lifestyle. Only after you have exhausted all of these avenues should you even look at your retirement accounts!

Using Your House As An ATM

In the middle of the prior decade, it became fashionable (and pretty much expected) to borrow against the equity in your home. People began to use their homes as an ATM – pulling money out in order to buy cars, make costly upgrades to the home, and even pay for their kids’ tuition! Thankfully, those days are pretty much over, as reality has begun to set in for many foolish homeowners.

However, there are still a good number of people considering using the equity in their home to consolidate their debt. You may look at the fact that you have a lower interest rate on your mortgage and get tempted to take out a home equity loan to pay off your debt.

This can be a great move if you plan to stay in the home and aren’t forced to sell early – due to financial hardships, or the need to move. However, if the value of your home drops, and you are in a position where you have to sell, you could be in serious trouble. If you run into financial trouble, then you risk going into foreclosure and losing your home. This is far worse than only being able to pay the minimum against your credit card bill.

Rather than seeing the equity in your home and “free money”, you need to consider it to be a cushion against falling home prices. If you are careful to evaluate your situation, and disciplined enough to leave a fair amount of equity, then consolidating your debt may be a wise move. Unfortunately, it can lead to disaster for many, so I would caution people to perform a serious and unbiased analysis – with a financial adviser if necessary – before making this decision!

Pay Off Debt By Borrowing From Friends Or Family

You all know the dangers of borrowing from a loved one. It can destroy your relationships, and many times, it isn’t worth it. Even if you are paying back the loan according to the terms which you agreed upon, bitterness can still set in. This is especially true if they see you making purchases that seem questionable in their mind. They may wonder how you are able to buy that item, or go on vacation, but you aren’t able to pay them anything extra.

If you run into trouble and are not able to pay them back on schedule, their reaction could be even worse. This is a very tough decision to be faced with, but I would advise approaching the idea of borrowing money from a loved one with extreme caution.

This post was written by Khaleef who currently owns and operates, KNS Financial and Fat Guy Skinney Wallet. He is an excellent writer and often focuses on personal finance topics just like me! Take a look at his sites and if you like what you see, make sure to subscribe.

photo by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot

Reader Questions

  1. What are some of the most creative methods you used to pay off debt?
  2. If you are still in debt (yes, a mortgage loan is debt), how aggressive are you in paying it back?
  3. What are some of your financial decisions that have backfired?
  4. Would you ever borrow money from a loved one? If so, how would you safeguard against hard feelings?

Get Out of Debt Money


My name is Derek, and I have my Bachelors Degree in Finance from Grand Valley State University. After graduation, I was not able to find a job that fully utilized my degree, but I still had a passion for Finance! So, I decided to focus my passion in the stock market. I studied Cash Flows, Balance Sheets, and Income Statements, put some money into the market and saw a good return on my investment. As satisfying as this was, I still felt that something was missing. I have a passion for Finance, but I also have a passion for people. If you have a willingness to learn, I will continue to teach.


  1. This is some very good advice. The secret is to plan accordingly before jumping into the first option you think of. I think if these three guidelines are followed carefully, then paying back debt can be done reasonably and also some future debt can be avoided which is an important part of the equation. Putting yourself in the position to take on more debt when trying to repay a previous one is obviously taking a step in the wrong direction. Thanks for the pointers.

    • You are right. No matter how we attempt to pay off our debt, we must have a plan, and think through all of the options carefully!

  2. These are all mistakes that should be avoided as you mention. I am wondering if you could follow up this post with alternatives for gaining financing if you can’t use these sources and banks won’t lend.

    • That would be a great idea. I’ll work on that once things calm down a little bit (I would like it to be well-researched).

  3. I agree, this is good advice. I acutally know a few people who have borrowed against their mortgage; not a good idea. I think the reason impulse spending is so hard for people to hack is because it feeds like an addiction- every time they buy something they feel good and excited. Once that initial feeling wears off, the want it again. What people really need to do is find those same feeling in other places; like frugal activities and spending time with friends and family. Once that high can get satisfied in other ways, people’s accounts would improve.

  4. You make a very good point about the feelings that accompany impulse spending. It can be a great feeling to buy something new and shiny – especially if we convince ourselves that we “deserve” it!

  5. Ugh, borrowing from a loved one — what a recipe for disaster! I have not done so, but I’ve seen the troubles a friend experienced with that one. It was not pretty — and certainly not advisable!

    • I did that before, and I thank God that things worked out, but I would try to never do it again. There are too many things that can go wrong, and it’s hardly ever worth it!

  6. Hey Khaleef!

    #2 and #3 are particularly ugly mistakes! I made the stupid mistake of using student loans to purchase a car in college when I could have driven the one I had. Stupid tax to me. Live and learn.

    • I know that many students use their loans to pay for other things while in college. It can seem so enticing – which is why kids need to be taught financial discipline very early!

  7. I pay extra on my mortgage every month. Not a ton, but something. I figure a little every month is better than either procrastinating until I have something bigger, or killing myself to send more than I can comfortably send.

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