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Don’t Take Out a Loan From Your 401(k)

This article was written by in Best Of, Debt Reduction, Investing. 45 comments.


As a very last resort, employees with active 401(k) retirement accounts have an option to take out a loan against their future. Borrowing money is never a good position to be in, but if you’re borrowing money from yourself, you ease the pain. 401(k) plans permit borrowing at interest, and paying interest to yourself can help improve your finances in retirement.

The existence of a 401(k) account is often used as an excuse for not creating an emergency fund; if a loan is available at any time, why settle for low high-yield savings accounts when your money could be put to better use? This isn’t a valid argument as elucidated by the dangerous drawbacks of 401(k) loans.

Most people who take out 401(k) loans stop contributing new earnings to their 401(k) plans. Not only is the withdrawn loan not earning more or increasing value in your retirement account, you’re not adding new investments.

One of the most popular emergencies requiring more cash is the loss of a job. If you lose your job, you won’t be able to take a loan from your 401(k). Additionally, if you already have a 401(k) loan when you lose your job, it will be due within 60 days or less. At the same time you need cash, you’ll need to pay back your loan or suffer income taxes plus a 10% penalty. According to a recent study by Aon Consulting, 70 percent of workers who lose their jobs while having an active 401(k) loan default on that loan (pdf).

Even if the 401(k) loan is paid back in full, there’s another drawback. The interest on the loan is considered income, and therefore taxed, twice. When you pay interest back to the 401(k) account, it is paid with your regular income, which would be included on your tax return as taxable income. Once that interest is in your 401(k) account, it is mixed in with the before-tax contributions, if your loan was from the before-tax portion of your 401(k). When you retire and you withdraw your funds, the full amount of your before-tax contributions and their earnings will be subject to income tax. You could also argue that the principal portion of the loan payback amounts are taxed twice as well, because a 401(k) loan payback is not considered tax-advantaged and does not reduce your taxable income like a 401(k) contribution.

Congress is currently mulling legislation to limit 401(k) loans. If the law passes as it currently stands in bill form, employees could only take three loans against their 401(k) at a time. Repeated borrowing just sounds like trouble. The law would allow employees to continue contributing to 401(k)s while a loan is outstanding. I would think if any extra money is available, it would be better served paying off the loan rather than making new investments. I suppose it could be more tax efficient this way, but paying off debt should be a priority, even if the borrower is the same individual as the lender. Third, the law would ban 401(k) accounts from issuing debit cards that allow investors to use retirement funds as a transaction account. This sounds reasonable.

Some 401(k) plans might be more restrictive than the law. In most cases, borrowing from a 401(k) is just a bad idea. It’s tempting in emergencies, though, particularly for households that have not been able to create an emergency fund. A 401(k) loan should be a last resort. If you get stuck and are unable to pay the loan, the government takes a big chunk. On a $10,000 loan, assuming 25% federal taxes, 5% state taxes, and a 10% penalty, you’ll only be able to keep $6,000.

Have you or would you borrow from your own 401(k)?

Updated August 20, 2011 and originally published August 1, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar LR

I have borrowed from my 401k. I know that doing so causes loss of earnings on the outstanding loan amount and there is a risk of defaulting on the loan through job loss. However, I still think it makes sense in some situations. In my case, I could borrow from my 401k at 4.25%, use the proceeds to pay off a 15% credit card and be paying myself back the interest rather than giving it to the credit card company. In addition, my 401k account has been making extremely dismal returns so I don’t feel I am losing much and actually saving myself the high credit card interest.

I continue to contribute to my account to get the employer 50% match (free money) which also helps to offset the loss of earnings. Fortunately, the risk of losing my job is relatively low (fingers crossed), so I should be able to repay the loan and not default. I also have another ten years (at least) to contribute to my 401k which increases the possibility of being able to make up for some of the lost earnings. I know some say borrowing from your 401k is a bad idea. But, I think the reasons cited above make the idea more palatable.

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avatar Jon -- Free Money Wisdom

I personally highly recommend Roth IRA’s. You can take money out without any penalties and I feel they are the way to go! And as far as an emergency account goes EVERYONE needs one. This is a must have before a Roth IRA or a 401k. It’s essential.

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avatar Erock007

I feel that the inception of the 401k is a lessor choice somewhat liken to the deferred child care “allowance”.

It is your money, so why should you be penalized for using it as you see fit? Yes, planning for the future needs is a very important consideration, but when you look at the present value of the dollar vs. the future value of the dollar, you can begin to see why bank and other institutions are charging the interest rates that they are. It is the projected devaluation of the dollar over time that creates the rate today. If your investment is not performing as you’d like, you should be able to move into something that you are more comfortable with, without taking a hit.

With the child care allowance you are getting those dollars put away tax free, but when you compare it to the deduction at tax time, the standard deduction rate is a higher ratio than what you’d would be taxed on the credit if it were taxed as income out of your paycheck and you benefit more from just paying the childcare as you go along and then take the credit at the end of the year.

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avatar jim

I agree that 401k loans are not a good idea and should only be a last resort.

Theres really no double taxation going on. Money that you repay loans with or spend on things is after tax money. Thats true whether or not you have a car loan from a credit union, a credit card from chase or a 401k loan. So theres really no net loss as far as taxes or negative tax impact to your 401k. Saying its double taxed makes it seem like thers extra taxes paid somehow and that is not the case.

I think its more valid and more accurate to say the interest on 401k loans are not tax deductible. That is true and make 401k loans less favorable than say home equity loans or student loans.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

I borrowed from a 401k about 10 years ago to buy a house w/cash (very long story), and paid it back within a year, but it was very stressful, knowing that if husband lost his job, the balance would be due. I would never recommend doing it except for the most dire emergencies (foreclosure, illness, etc) because there is nothing out there that is worth that kind of stress.

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

The only problem with the 401k loan is the requirement it be paid back on a faster than normal schedule (60 days) if you lose your job. Congress should change that requirement. It does not make any sense. All the other reasons given here (which are the same reasons given everywhere else are just simply wrong).

As jim already accurately described, there is no double taxation. There is also no loss of earnings potential. If you have it invested you might get a return. If you take out a loan you will get a return, the interest you pay. Ah but the argument is that’s not a real return because it came from yourself. This is another failure of logic. If you borrow the money from a bank and pay the bank 5% and you had your 401k invested in funds that returned 5% you would have paid 5% interest and gotten a 5% return in your 401k. If you borrow the funds from your 401k at 5% and pay the interest to yourself the exact same thing happens. You are out 5% interest and your 401k grew with a 5% return. There is absolutely no difference and why everyone who argues against 401k withdrawals continues to use this argument can only be ignorance or willful misleading.

As to people stopping to contribute when they take a loan, that has nothing to do with whether a loan from a 401k is a good idea. If they take a loan from a bank they could just as easily stop contributing to their 401k in that case too. Just because people have done this doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the legitimacy of taking a loan.

The real issue with taking a loan from your 401k is not where it came from but what it is used for. If the loan is used on consumption then its a bad idea regardless of where you take it. If its used for a business purpose or for something that can help grow your asset base then it may have validity. The loan is good or bad on its merits, not based on where it comes from. The 401k loan is just a lot easier to get. I am sure it is mis-used on consumption all the time. But that is an argument that the loan idea in the first place was a bad idea, not that getting it from the 401k is a bad idea. People take loans all the time, everyday. Its called credit cards and they are almost always used for consumption and that’s a bad loan.

There is nothing wrong with taking a loan from your 401k if the purpose of the loan has merit and you are a responsible borrowing with diligent money management and payback skills. Unfortunately very few Americans meet those requirements so all the poor choices are used to argue that 401k loans are bad. NO, for most Americans, LOANS ARE BAD! You want to fix the problem, take nearly all credit away from most Americans. Then you will fix the problem. If people can’t get 401k loans they will just get standard bank loans, or credit card loans, or pay day loans. People are going to get the money if you make it available to them.

So to review there is only one problem with the 401k loan and that is the requirement of a 60 day payback on loss of job. That is something that certainly has to be factored in when understanding the risk. None of the other arguments are valid as they pertain specifically to 401k loans.

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avatar jim

Apex, one detail You said :

“The only problem with the 401k loan is the requirement it be paid back on a faster than normal schedule (60 days) if you lose your job. Congress should change that requirement”

My understanding is that the law does not dictate that loans be repaid when you leave the job. The IRS documentation says that employers “may” require repayment. But the government doesn’t force the 401k plan to require immediate repayment. However every 401k plan I’ve heard of does require repayment. I’m not sure why however since it seems like it should have no real impact on the 401k plan since the money is the ex-employees money and I doubt the loan maintenance is considerable.

Its a subtle difference but the government didn’t force companies to do this, they just let them do it.

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avatar jim

I just looked up the rules for my own 401k. My employers 401k plan does NOT require that we immediately pay back the full balance of a 401k loan if you leave the company. Lucky me I guess. I didn’t even realize that.

“If you have a loan outstanding and you do not receive or request a distribution of your Plan account, you will receive a coupon book and may continue to make payments directly to Fidelity in order to avoid default.” (our 401k is managed by Fidelity)

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

Interesting, I did not know that. That’s a big bummer that companies choose to do this then. I can see how it would prevent you from rolling to an IRA but it seems like they should let you stay on your existing schedule.

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avatar jim

There is probably some reason the companies make people pay out loans when they leave. Maybe they don’t like paying fees associated with the loans. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was it. Maybe theres some liability for the 401k fund if the loans are defaulted on, but I kinda doubt it would be setup like that.

I was actually quite surprised to read my own 401k plan doesn’t require immediate loan repayment when you leave. I had taken it as a given that the loan would be due as that seems to be how everyone says the 401k loans work. But I wonder how often that is actually the case? I wonder how many other plans out there don’t actually require repayment of the 401k loans within the 60 day period if you are laid off/fired/quit??

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avatar Pat S

Taking a 401(k) loan may be the lesser evil in some circumstances. For example, during my divorce, my ex-wife wiped out our emergency savings. This left me with no money to pay the associated divorce settlement. Left with no other options, I looked into unsecured loans, loans from family, etc to gain the liquid cash needed for the legal obligation. The most favorable loan terms came from my 401(k) program. I arranged for a 1 year repayment schedule, and was able to quickly pay off the balance of the loan. In my case, paying interest to myself (as per the terms of the 401(k) loan without incurring penalties for early withdrawal were the best course of action that I could find.

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avatar Brianne

We took a 401K loan earlier this year. We wanted to put 20% down on our first house but we only had 15% so we took the 5% out and a little more to help with closing costs and moving costs. We are paying it back agressively so that I can leave my job if need be. I’ve been here 9.5 years though and they recently promoted me so there’s little chance of losing my job.

We did the math and figured out we would save about $7K over the first 5 years by getting a conventional loan without mortgage insurance. And it’s basically like I just bumped my retirement contribution up by 5%. My only problem is my company can’t figure out how to automatically deduct the money from my paycheck so I have to use two stamps a month mailing the 401K servicer our payments.

I don’t love the situation but it’s really just me borrowing money from myself. I wasn’t allowed to borrow more than half of what I had in there and I wasn’t even close. They also wouldn’t let me set a repayment term of less than 61 months, so I set it at six years. Hopefully it won’t take nearly that long to repay it.

The interest rate is 4.25% which isn’t horrible. And I’m still not completely sure how the double-taxing works. I suppose I’m paying myself back with after-tax money and it will be taxed again when it is withdrawn from the account in my retirement.

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

What you did makes total sense. It was a very wise and smart financial decision. Anyone who says different is spectacularly wrong.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,535 (Platinum)

It’s easy to say that after the fact. Had Brianne or someone in the same situation unfortunately lost her job — and longevity can lead to a false sense of security, sometimes, as many companies care only about the bottom line — she might have had to scramble to repay the remainder of the loan in 60 days. For some, it would be possible, for others, it could lead to more — and more expensive — loans. The hindsight reasoning that says the 401(k) loan is a good decision is the same reasoning that says most people don’t need an emergency fund or an insurance policy, because often, neither is used.

Sometimes 401(k) loans work out… but those who partake in these loans must be willing to accept the risk. Some aren’t aware of the risk, while others who feel their job is safe feel the risk is lower. The only way to know whether the decision was good or bad is to see what happens.

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

I already explained that the one downside is the 60 day repay on losing a job. That requirement should be removed. There is no reason for it. But even so, if someone is responsible they can usually manage this risk reasonably well although I understand you can never be certain. But even so, your article spends very little time on this risk and none of your other reasons are valid as I already explained. 401k loans are often demonized and all the reasons except for the 60 day repay are simply scare tactics or mathematically incorrect.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,535 (Platinum)

Mathematical issues aside — and I still disagree with your opinion on this, though the difference in taxes would almost always be negligible — there are ways to make 401(k) loans work. Keep investing in the 401(k) while paying back the loan. Pay on time. Don’t default. Don’t lose your job. Some borrowers can do this and have success with a 401(k) loan. Many don’t. Some investors have success day trading. Some scammers have success bilking money from unsuspecting consumers without getting caught. Some musicians may have success releasing an album of avant garde music with a goal of topping the charts. On the whole, though, these things usually tend to be bad ideas, and it’s fair to steer people toward better plans. If a 401(k) loan is the best plan for an individual, then so be it, but understand the risks.

avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

Are you arguing that most people who get a 401k loan do it poorly and damage their retirement future as a result or that 401k loans are inherently dangerous and that it is nearly impossible to do one without damaging your retirement future.

Based on the comment by Cejay it appears that commenter has concluded the mere fact that they did one was inherently bad.

By the way, if you are arguing the former, I agree with you, however credit cards are much more damaging to people than 401k loans due to people using them poorly.

avatar csdx

Flexo: “Keep investing in the 401(k) while paying back the loan. Pay on time. Don’t default. Don’t lose your job. ”

But couldn’t this be said of any traditional (non-401k) loan? How is this above and beyond those kinds of loans? If you don’t follow those for any other loan, are you not just as much in the hole?

From a risk/reward standpoint, the difference from a traditional loan is: You risk having the balance due if you lose your job (though the consequences are different, e.g. you won’t lose your home, or take a credit score hit). And in return, the reward is essentially a sub 1% loan as you’re only losing the money from double taxing the interest payments.

avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

@csdx,

There is no double tax on the interest payment. If you paid interest to a bank on a standard non-house loan you would pay tax on that interest. People get lost on this one because they think you are paying tax on the money before you put it in and then again when you take it out. But consider the math. You have 1K in a 401k and take out a 1K loan at 5% and pay it back a year later (I know you can’t borrow 100% but this just keeps the math easy). So you owe 50 bucks interest over 1 year assuming one lump sum payment again to keep the math easy. Your 401k now has $1050 in it assuming no other contributions and so that extra $50 will get taxed when you withdraw it and you paid tax on the salary that you used to pay it back. Seems like double tax right? But wait, there’s more. :)

What if you did this with a traditional bank loan for 1K at 5% and your 401k in the meantime earned 5% return in a stable bond fund. So what is the situation in this case. Your 401k has $1050 in it so the extra $50 will get taxed and the $50 you paid to the bank will also be with money that was taxed. So in this case the $50 gets taxed twice as well, its just a matter of where the money came from. And most likely you can’t get the loan for 5% from the bank so instead you pay them 8% or $80 so you are out the extra 30 bucks plus that $80 was all money that was taxed as well so in that case both the outlay of money is better with the 401k and the amount of money that gets subjected to tax is better with the 401k.

People can easily get fooled by this double tax thing without running some numbers and realizing that you can call it a double tax if you want but the result is the same whether you paid the interest to your 401k or a bank. That 50 bucks of interest is taxed and the $50 gain in your 401k is taxed. They are both taxed regardless of whether the loan was from the bank or your 401k.

avatar csdx

Hmm, that makes a fair deal of sense. Of course the money then gets triple taxed when you go to spend it, because of sales tax, then quadruple and quintuple as the store owner pays various taxes… and then it goes to China, or something like that.

avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

@csdx

But of course. Seems fair. We take 4 or 5 cracks at it and then let China have a shot. :)

avatar Barb Friedberg

LR made a good point, but he must be quite disciplined. I understand some folks lose their job and have no other alternative, but this article is a good reminder to build up some cash reserves, so when $$$ probs occur you can avoid the pitfalls of borrowing from a 401K.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

Boy, it seems that we have made every financial mistake there is to make at one time or another. We did borrow from my husband’s 401k years ago and used it to pay off credit card debts. At the time, being fairly young and stupid we thought nothing of our futur. Being old enough to see retirement, let alone make plans for that time, was a far off thought. So we took the loan out and paid it back. Until the last 5 to 7 years, when we became conscious of our money and what we were doing with it, we never realized that it was a bad thing. But lesson learned.

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

If you paid it back and didn’t default and pay the early withdrawal penalty then it wasn’t a bad thing unless you used it to increase your spending on consumption in which case any means of doing that is bad.

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avatar csdx

I’m not sure I’d call that 401k loan stupid, especially as a way to consolidate CC debt. I mean, the difference between paying 15+% to the CC company, versus paying yourselves 3% is huge. If you hadn’t have done that, you likely would’ve been even poorer now since that much more money would’ve been lost to you (and instead in the hands of the card issuers). I see the 401k loans as the thing that was messing you up, but rather your attitude towards money and overspending it.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

When we were young, we made quite a few as well. We were ignorant back then. We figured there was a better way and began researching. Needless to say, parents did not teach this area as it was taboo to talk about. We learned from the school of hard knocks.

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avatar Evan

I don’t think Flexo and Apex are really arguing different points. It is just that the 60 day risk doesn’t make it worth it for Flexo, while Apex is willing to take that risk for the ability to borrow from himself (and sometimes at a lower interest rate). Depending on the particular plan, I think I would have to side with Apex for the sole fact that sometimes it is the right call and every situation is different.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

I really never got the concept of borrowing money from yourself. It just doesn’t make much sense to me. Then the government gets involved making rules about money that’s yours. With other invedtment vehicles available, I just don’t see the attraction. Unless there is an employer match. Then free money is ‘a good thing’.

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avatar krantcents

I have never borrowed against my 401K nor would I . A 401K is a long term investment, therefore you should contribute money that you can let grow for a long time.

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avatar Steve Dupree

That is along the lines of what I was thinking. A 401(k) is a long term investment. A loan to yourself is like a bond. I guess it could replace the bond part of your long-term investments.

I wish people would stop saying that the interest is double taxed. And especially that the principal is double taxed.

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avatar jim

I think a potential drawback to the 401k loans is that the interest rate isn’t very high. Of course thats good one one side because you don’t have to pay very high interest. But you’re paying that interest rate to yourself into your own retirement. So your retirement account is growing at a slower rate than you might want. If your 401k loan is at 4% interest then that means your borrowed retirement funds are only growing at 4%. Most people wouldn’t be satisfied if their retirement only grew at 4%. Of course a 4% guaranteed return isn’t exactly bad, but its much more conservative than most people treat their investments. Maybe you’re a super conservative investor and your 401k funds usually sit in 100% long term bonds then the 4% safe return might be OK. But most people would be disappointed with the prospect of only making 4% on their retirement accounts.

So yeah you’re saving interest on one hand by only paying 4%. But on the other hand you’re only getting 4%.

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

That’s a fair point Jim. However long term gains the last decade are below 4%. Here is an interesting question for you. Suppose we were in 1980 when interest rates were 20% and you needed a loan. Would this argument then hold that the best place to get that loan is your 401k because the rate of return likely exceeds anything else you could get in your retirement fund?

I think the answer is yes by the way.

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avatar jim

If it was 1980 today I’d be buying myself some 30 year treasury bills. :)

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avatar Squirrelers

Totally agree that one shouldn’t borrow from a 401k. Set aside emergency funds, don’t raid the 401k. Now, I realize that sometimes people get into a true bind, and this is a last resort. Ok, fine. But as a practice, I think it’s a good idea to “forget” about the 401k and fund your personal expenses from taxable savings, period

I recall a time in the past where someone tried to encourage me to borrow against my 401k…I immediately lost the idea that this person cared about my best interests!

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

I would have to be truly destitute to borrow from a retirement account. I like to remind myself that I probably have more options now than I will if and when I am older.

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avatar Bryan Cooper

Great job on covering the issues with borrowing on the 401K. Folks really need to have the mindset that it is a retirement account and not a revolving loan fund. I see too many people using it to repay borrowing from living beyond their means.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦162 (Cent)

taking a loan from your 401k has to be a last choice option for a person struggling.

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avatar qixx ♦1,895 (Half-Dollar)

After my last job loss i cashed out my 403(b). Knowing the tax penalty now – i did not realize them at the time – i’d not do it again. I looked at the loan options and decided it was not worth the hassle and cashing out was better. Money you put into a 401(k) or 403(b) is money you should never touch until retirement.

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avatar skylog ♦368 (Nickel)

great topic/posts/discussion. clearly, this would probably be a last resort for most, but i suppose it could also be a life-saver for some. the payback/loss of job scenario scares the heck out of me personally.

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avatar Steve Dupree

Like the 60 day rule, some 401(k) plans impose a rule that you can’t make new contributions while you have an outstanding loan. This makes a 401(k) loan a really bad deal, if you either have an employer match, or will have the loan out long enough that you’ll lose contribution opportunities.

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avatar Joe Morgan

I couldn’t agree more!

I wrote a similar post as a reaction to what struck me as “dumb advice” from SmartMoney magazine. SmartMoney ran an article in which the expert called 401k loans “The most affordable loan available.” It’s my view that just looking at the interest rate alone is a short-sighted way to consider loans in general, and potentially disastrous when considering a 401k loan.

(here’s the post for anyone interested: http://simpledebtfreefinance.com/dumb-money-tip-from-smartmoney-mag/)

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avatar Remy

Question: If a person has a 401k loan for 10k and has $75k invested and during the duration of having a loan balance that individual switches employers – what happens to the remaining funds invested ($65k)?

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,535 (Platinum)

I wouldn’t say that 401(k) loans are inherently bad — just like credit cards, or money in general for that matter, are not inherently “evil” as it’s popular to suggest — just that they tend to go wrong… so.. to answer your question about which I’m arguing, it’s the former.

Credit cards at least have the possibility of benefiting someone who is on top of their financial game (through rewards, 0% arbitrage opportunities in a better economic era, etc., if one doesn’t take the argument further to suggest that the cost of rewards makes life more expensive for everyone). A loan of any kind has the financial advantage of providing cash when it’s needed, but there’s very little on the reward side other than that, if we’re comparing credit cards with installment loans. I do agree though that for the undisciplined, credit cards can wreak disastrous havoc on a financial life, especially considering the interest rates are typically higher than loans…

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avatar Apex ♦478 (Nickel)

I respect that and don’t disagree with any of that. I think the article comes across more from the perspective that 401k loans are inherently bad. Perhaps a way to handle that is to spell out the risks to a 401k loan. Show which ones can be mitigated and how and which ones (the 60 day payback on job loss) cannot be mitigated and then discuss why so many of them go wrong as you stated. Maybe show bad reasons to do it, bad ways to do it, and if you are going to do it, the ways to do it correctly fully understanding the risk you may be taking.

To use a phrase that has been in the political debate lately: that would seem to be a bit of a more “balanced” approach.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,535 (Platinum)

Fair analysis of the article. I’ll probably revisit the issue again and take another approach. I’m not unwilling to look at issues from another viewpoint and reformulate my opinions.

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