Should you pay off your mortgage before you retire?

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Mortgage and retirement
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Among the central issues of retirement planning is whether you should pay off your mortgage before you stop working. While it’s a straightforward question, the answer is less clear. Financial planners fall on both sides of the fence when it comes to advising their clients on how to handle their house payment.

Are there advantages to paying off your home before you stop working?

The truth is, Americans have a love/hate relationship with mortgages, and with good reason. While these long-term loans have allowed folks across the socio-economic strata an avenue to home-ownership, the mortgage is also perhaps the most dreaded bill we pay every month. Why? Because it is by far our biggest monthly expense.

While doing research for my book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, I gathered data on how retirees handle their mortgages, and how their particular situation impacted their happiness. I learned that the happiest retirees go into retirement either mortgage-free or within five years of paying it off completely.

But today, more people than ever are moving into retirement still carrying a mortgage. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of homeowners ages 65 and older with mortgage debt increased from 22% to 30%. For homeowners 75 and older, the rate jumped from 8.4% to 21.2%.

And just how much do these folks still owe on their mortgages? The median debt climbed over the same period from approximately $43,500 to almost $80,000. Do the math and you see that this is an 82% increase. So, if your mortgage loan burning party is still some ways off, you’re not alone.

As you contemplate retirement, what should your strategy be? Should you set your financial focus on making your mortgage disappear?

Some financial professionals would answer with a resounding “No.” They look at it in terms of net returns. Think about a scenario where you have $100,000 socked away. You could use that money to pay off your mortgage or keep it invested in the stock market. Say your mortgage interest rate is 4%. These pros will tell you to hang on to the mortgage, because you may net 8% of gains from the stock market, putting you ahead 4% overall.

This strategy makes theoretical sense, but we have to ask if it passes the real-world test. The answer is no. In everyday life, we could go a decade with a flat market, just like we did in the 2000’s, something I recently discussed with Barron’s Magazine. Or the market could take a tumble right before you decide it’s time to cash out. In either of these scenarios, you will have paid 4% on your mortgage with little or no gain from your market investments. In my opinion, paying off a mortgage before retirement (or soon thereafter) is more of a financial sure thing.

But back to our question and how it applies to you. Should you pay off your home?

My answer is a qualified yes. Each decision is highly individual and requires careful calculation. Consider these three factors as you weigh your situation, and whether to wipe that house payment off your monthly budget:

1. You don’t have to have a stash of cash

If you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to drop on your mortgage, that’s perfectly okay. And you’re not alone – very few people can throw a wad of money at their house payment all at once. Most happy retirees who own their homes outright paid off their mortgage early little by little, making more than the minimum monthly payment over several years. In my experience, probably 70% of retirees who are mortgage-free used this method to reach that goal.

Think about this scenario. You have just signed a 30-year mortgage of $250,000 at 5% interest, and your scheduled payment is $1,342 per month. If you just add an additional $300 to each payment, you’ll trim nine years and four months off the life of the loan – and save $79,684 in interest. That’s no small change.

Other ideas include saving up to make an extra mortgage payment each year, or structuring your payment plan so that you pay 50% of your monthly obligation every two weeks (which leads to an extra month’s payment every 12 months).

2. Pay with the right money, and pay the right amount

I want you to hear me loud and clear on this one: Never, ever use retirement account (IRA, 401k) money to pay off a mortgage. Never. Why? Because paying off your mortgage by tapping your nest egg won’t create that coveted peace of mind. Instead, it could create more stress.

For starters, withdrawing money from retirement accounts will likely incur a significant tax bill, on par with the taxes you’d pay on earned wages. Second, reducing your hard-earned retirement reserves undercuts your future security two-fold: It takes actual cash away and it reduces future interest earnings on the accounts.

Where does this leave you? With your non-retirement accounts, a.k.a. the ones that have already been taxed. But use caution here, too. These funds are important in your on-going security. They provide liquidity that can be tapped in case of emergency or opportunity, and tapping them out won’t help your peace of mind.

Anyone who’s familiar with my financial planning strategy knows that I’m a believer in the one-third rule. The rule is simple and powerful: If you can pay off your mortgage with no more than one-third of your non-retirement savings, you should consider doing so.

For real numbers, say you owe $50,000 and have $160,000 in savings. You should go ahead and wipe out that mortgage. In this case, you’ll still have $110,000 in liquid assets as you cruise down the retirement road.

3. The feel-good factor

Let’s talk more about peace of mind, as it’s paramount to a fulfilling retirement. My research on the happiest retirees has taught me that owning a home free and clear creates a real sense of calm and peace. Plain and simple, it just feels good to say goodbye to that monthly mortgage payment as you enter a new and different phase of life.

The feel-good factor makes sense. With no mortgage payment, you have dramatically lowered your monthly retirement living expenses and taken stress off your nest egg and other sources of monthly income. And with this extra cash on hand, you have more financial freedom to pursue your retirement passions and dreams – think added vacations, hobbies, or charitable giving. Isn’t that what a happy retirement is all about?

Disclosure: This information is provided to you as a resource for informational purposes only. It is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal. This information is not intended to, and should not, form a primary basis for any investment decision that you may make. Always consult your own legal, tax or investment advisor before making any investment/tax/estate/financial planning considerations or decisions.

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Wes Moss About the author:
Wes Moss is the host of Money Matters – the country’s longest running live call-in, investment and personal finance radio show – on WSB radio. He is the Chief Investment Strategist at Capital Investment Advisors (CIA), and a partner at Wela, a digital financial advisory service. In 2014 and 2015, Barron’s ...Read more
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