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Financing cosmetic surgery

Financing for cosmetic and plastic surgery has been around since the 1990s, making the procedures increasingly available to the nonrich.

Broke? Credit cards maxed out? A financing company is eager to lend you the money. asap thinks you look great the way you are, but if you insist on getting work done it's worth knowing which options are credible, and whether financing is the best way to go.

On the surface, financing seems like an ideal arrangement. Doctors get all their money up front from the financing companies. Financing companies work with the patients to arrange payments and make money from the interest on the loans. And you don't have to save $20,000 for that liposuction procedure.

But anyone considering this route needs to be careful, says Dr. Steve Fallek, a cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon in New York and Englewood, N.J.

''You're adding a middle man,'' says Fallek. ''You're adding a financial company that doesn't have your best interests. If this is the only way you can afford it, and this is really what you want to do, by all means go ahead. But if there are other ways to safely go about doing this, that's a better option.''

So what should you consider before you finance that tummy tuck? Here's a list of tips:

1. Choose the surgeon first. Some finance companies encourage prospective patients to secure a loan from them first and then pick from a list of surgeons they prefer to work with. This is not a good idea, says Fallek. ''A financing company is not going to be able to give you the best plastic surgeon,'' he says. ''You want to go to a board-certified plastic surgeon who is reputable, honest and who hopefully you've gotten the name from someone who has had plastic surgery from that person.'' Fallek says patients should ask their surgeon to recommend a finance company.

2. Don't finance minor procedures. ''Financing is usually not a good idea for less invasive procedures,'' says Dr. James Wells, past president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. ''Something like Botox, the prices are reasonable enough, if you're getting financing, it will cost you more than what it is worth.''

3. Use common sense. ''If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,'' says Dr. Michael McGuire, of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. ''Just like 1 percent home refinancing programs. Those are very risky. Be skeptical of a very low interest rate. There's usually something hidden.''

4. Consider the total cost. ''Make sure to find out about the total cost of the procedure including the surgeons' fees and the costs of anesthesiology and your surgical center or hospital stay,'' says Mike Testa, president of CareCredit, part of GE Consumer Finance. And what happens if you want your tummy a little tighter a few years later? You may want to factor in the cost of possible future procedures.

5. Make sure the finance company is reputable. It should have a good track record in financing health care procedures and work with a network of doctors, says Testa. ''If you are applying for financing through the practice, the practice should clearly outline the terms of the financing and provide you with the detailed terms in writing before you apply,'' he says. You should never pay a broker fee.

6. Don't see surgeon after surgeon in search of a lower interest rate. Most surgeons use the same financing companies, and your credit is going to determine your interest rate -- not which surgeon you use. Seeing different surgeons takes up time and money. ''I recommend people get second opinions but not for the financing, more for finding the right surgeon,'' says McGuire.

7. Consider other options. Maybe your credit card or credit union has a lower interest rate. Maybe you can borrow the money from mom and dad. ''A lot of patients take out home equity loans to pay for this,'' says McGuire. ''It becomes a second mortgage, and the interest rate is lower.''

8. Make sure you can afford the payments and consider the impact on your credit. ''It's inappropriate for someone to be financing when they don't have the financial wherewithal to pay for it,'' says McGuire. ''It's just putting much limitation on their livelihood and lifestyle.'' He also says patients who get in over their head are more likely to be dissatisfied with the surgery.