Just about everything I read on IRA withdrawals says that a 10 percent penalty is imposed for all withdrawals before age 59 1/2. However, an article in The Washington Post last year said that if one "annuitizes," withdrawals can be made before that age without penalty. My accountant confirms that the new law does allow for "substantially equal periodic payments" before 59 1/2 without penalty. I'm 48, and began quarterly withdrawals from a very large IRA balance (the result of a rollover) last year. But others have told me I can't avoid the penalty, so I'm worried. Can you settle my mind?

Sure -- listen to your accountant. Distributions before age 59 1/2 are exempt from the 10 percent penalty if they are received at least annually in the form of an annuity based on your life expectancy (or the combined life expectancy with a named beneficiary).

In her informative article in last year's March 29 Post, Nancy Ross explained how to estimate the "substantially equal payments" to meet the requirements of the new law -- or at least professional opinions of those requirements, in the absence of pending definitive IRS regulations. As an alternative to working the numbers yourself, you could use the IRA money to buy a commercial single- or joint-life annuity -- a lot easier, but with some disadvantages you may not be happy with.

Since you have already started withdrawals, you should know that if you change the distribution method before reaching the magic age of 59 1/2 (except in case of death or disability), the IRS will go back and impose the penalty on all earlier withdrawals.

And another rule: If you change the method of distribution after age 59 1/2 but before the annuity has been in effect at least five years, the penalty will be imposed retroactively on all withdrawals taken before that age -- but not on current withdrawals or those taken after 59 1/2. Since the 1986 tax law changed the IRA picture so drastically, I must ask if the law altered the April 15 deadline for a previous-year contribution in any way. Must a contribution now be made in the calendar year of its deductibility?

Under the new laws you still have until April 15 of each year to make an IRA contribution for the preceding year and claim it on the tax return for that earlier year. There was a minor change, effective in 1987: The April 15 deadline is firm even if you apply for a filing extension. (In previous years, the automatic filing extension to Aug. 15 also extended the final date for prior-year IRA contributions.)

If you qualify for a tax-deductible IRA, this makes it possible to file your return in, say, February and claim the deduction even though you don't make the deposit until April.

But if something happens to prevent you from depositing the contribution you have claimed, be sure to file an amended tax return (on Form 1040-X) eliminating the deduction.

You're considering taking a personal loan for $2,000, and you're trying to decide whether to repay the money in one year or two. A one-year repayment will cost you less in total interest, but the monthly payments will be larger. Critical questions: How much less interest? How much larger payments?

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) has developed a simple slide-rule chart, called "The Cost of Credit," that will answer this and similar questions in a snap. For the question above, for example, at 12 percent interest the one-year loan will require monthly payments of $177.70 and a total interest cost of $132.38. Monthly payments for two years will be $94.14 with interest totaling $259.52.

Which way to go? Well, that depends on your particular circumstances. Can you afford the larger payments to save finance charges, or are you willing to pay more interest to get the lower monthly payment?

The CUNA chart can provide the numbers necessary to help you make the decision. You can get it from CUNA Public Relations. Send a self-addressed business size envelope and $1 to Credit Chart, CUNA PR, P.O. Box 431, Madison, Wis. 53701.

Abramson is a family financial counselor and tax adviser. Questions of general interest on tax matters, insurance, investments, estate planning and other aspects of family finances will be answered in this column. Advice cannot be given on an individual basis. Address all questions to E.M. Abramson, The Washington Post, Business & Finance News, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.