Let's give Congress some credit -- our lawmakers want to help. Thousands of Americans are facing foreclosures because of the subprime lending mess. Many had secured home loans with little or no money down, and with teasingly low initial interest rates. All of a sudden, they find their interest rates up and their mortgage obligations out of reach. What to do?

A lot of those desperate folks have tapped -- or drained -- their 401(k) plans or other retirement accounts to keep a roof over their heads. But if you're considering doing the same, bear in mind you'll face a 10% penalty for early withdrawal. For a withdrawal of $40,000, for example, expect a penalty fee of $4,000 -- on top of paying income tax on the full $40,000. If that seems unfair, rest assured that Congress is considering waiving that penalty to help people hang on to their homes. That may sound nice to you, but it scares me.

If you keep your 401(k) intact, you may end up losing the house in favor of an apartment or rental home. But if you drain your 401(k), you may still eventually lose your home, and along the way, you'll have lost your life savings, too. It can take a long time to build a retirement nest egg, and the earlier you can invest any dollars, the more time they'll have to grow.

Even if you empty a retirement account now, and plan to restart it later, you'll lose a lot of ground. Assuming you can even find 10% growth in this market environment, it'll still take about 15 years to turn $1 into $4 -- without considering taxes and inflation. Stocks like these may not be the saviors they seem, despite their strong long-term performance:

Company

10-year annual average return

Costco (NASDAQ:COST)

8%

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH)

14%

SYSCO (NYSE:SYY)

11%

General Mills (NYSE:GIS)

10%

Kellogg (NYSE:K)

7%

Rohm & Haas (NYSE:ROH)

11%

MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGM)

13%

In addition, although your 401(k) is protected from creditors, your home often isn't. It's just not worth risking your retirement, especially when it may not be enough to prevent foreclosure anyway.

Most of us can't expect employer pensions anymore. Fortunately, we can still secure a comfy retirement. For detailed guidance, consult our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. A free trial will give you full access to all past issues. Advisor Robert Brokamp regularly recommends promising stocks and mutual funds, too.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Costco. SYSCO is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. UnitedHealth Group is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. UnitedHealth Group and Costco are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.