If you have to borrow money, try to avoid the banks and savings and loan associations. At most institutions, consumer and mortgage interest rates are hanging high, high, high.

Where else can you go for loans? That depends on what you're buying. If you want a small car, the auto dealers are charging 9.8 and 9.9 percent on certain models. These discount-loan programs expire next month, and if the economy is looking better, they may not be renewed. So, if you like one of the cars on the dealer floor, this is a good time to get it.

If you have an old whole-life insurance policy, you can borrow the cash value at 5 to 8 percent. The face value of the life insurance is reduced by the size of the loan. To keep your family protected, you might explore the possibility of turning in the policy, and replacing it with an equal amount of low-cost term insurance. You would get your money out of the cash-value policy (so there would be no need to borrow), and your family would not lose any insurance coverage.

If you have a cash-management account at a brokerage house, you can borrow against your stocks and bonds at roughly 10 to 11 1/2 percent. Minimum deposit for most of these accounts: $10,000.

And consider intra-family loans. A parent earning 8 percent in a bank account might consider lending money to a child at 9 1/2 percent (if the child is certain to repay).

Some banks and savings and loan associations have dropped their consumer interest rates, in order to attract more business. Customers of the First American Bank of Washington, D.C., can get four-year auto loans at 11 percent, compared with 12 to 15 percent at most institutions around the country. President C. Jackson Ritchie calls the auto-loan program "a risk" for the bank. But he's gambling that interest rates will stay low enough, long enough, for the bank to profit.

The Amalgamated Bank of New York City is charging the lowest rates in its area: 11.9 percent on loans for American cars, 12 1/2 percent for foreign cars and 14 percent for unsecured personal loans. The National Bank of North America recently weighed in with a "personal loan sale," offering 14 1/2 percent on unsecured loans. By comparison, some other banks are charging 16 to 19 percent on personal loans. Howard Lee, a senior vice president at Amalgamated, told my associate, Virginia Wilson, that his bank is making money at the lower interest rate, and he thinks that other banks could, too.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the Empire of America Federal Savings Association recently announced a variable-rate mortgage starting at 9 3/4 percent, with a fee of two points up front. The rate is tied to the varying yields on one-year Treasury bills, so payments will rise when interest rates go up again. But the mortgage rate will never rise (or fall) more than two percentage points. That's a first-class deal in today's market and, so far, more than 5,800 people have taken advantage of it. The president of Empire, Paul Willax, says that his S&L will make money on the loan.

Empire is also offering short-term consumer loans at low fixed rates. The average car loan is running for 28 months at 11 1/2 percent.

If these competitive institutions, and a few others around the country, can make money on lower interest rates, why have most banks and S&Ls kept rates relatively high? Three reasons: (1) The federal government has to borrow huge amounts of money to cover the enormous deficit, and the banks are afraid that will drive interest rates up again. (2) The banks and S&Ls want to rebuild their profit margins after a couple of tough years. (3) Banks that raise a lot of their lendable funds in the open market may have a higher cost of funds than the banks that get more of their lendable funds from depositors. Spokesmen for the banking industry believe that fixed-rate loans will stay around their current levels, while bankers await economic developments.

But rates may fall further on variable loans, whose rates can rise if conditions change. The wave of the future may be the kind of consumer loan offered by the Liberty National Bank in Louisville, Ky.: a variable-rate loan with a fixed monthly payment. If rates go up, it will take you longer to pay off the loan; if rates go down, you'll pay the loan off sooner.

Right now, Liberty National is offering four-year variable-rate auto loans at 12 3/4 percent, and fixed-rate auto loans at 14 1/4 percent. Five-year home-improvement loans are at 12.9 percent variable, compared with 16 percent if customers want a fixed rate. The banks can afford to give lower rates on variable loans, because if the general level of interest rates rises again, it is you--not they--who will pay the price.