As we approach the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the generalized American economic meltdown, I'll bet that you still know a few folks who have not managed to extricate themselves from that mess.

In my own personal circle, a few of my friends who've been work-challenged for an awfully long time have taken what might be the worst of all possible self-rescue routes and borrowed from or entirely cashed in their 401(k)s as a survival tactic.

The industry, rather delicately, calls them "hardship withdrawals," and while they might provide some short-term ability to pay the bills and replicate a stream of income, you know in your heart that draining your retirement fund to survive is a really, really bad idea.

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