When Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage Instead of Investing?

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Should you pay down your mortgage beyond the minimum or invest instead?

If you’re among the 85 million American individuals or families who own a home, you may ask yourself this question.

In a vacuum, it feels better when we don’t owe anyone money. But mortgage rates have been extremely low for years now.

According to Freddie Mac, the average American mortgage rate hovers between 3 and 4% interest. They’ve climbed a smidge recently, but they’re still near all-time historic lows.

The S&P 500 has produced an average return of 10.7% since moving to the 500-company format in 1957. There’s a good chance your mortgage rate is considerably lower than that figure.

The difference between paying 4% interest and earning a 10% return is enormous, especially compounded over decades. So you probably already realize that in many cases, paying the minimum on your mortgage and investing your excess money is a better choice.

But why is that? What factors should you consider? And are there any reasons to pay off your mortgage instead?


Table of Contents


Why You Should Invest Instead of Paying Off Your Mortgage

The further you are from retirement — in age and dollars — the easier the decision becomes.

You have to consider the interest rate on your mortgage. But if you’re the average American, you’re paying less than 4%.

Even being conservative, a total stock market or S&P 500 index fund is going to earn more than 4% annually over a decade or more.

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For most people, using your extra cash to service debt at a manageable interest rate comes with a major opportunity cost.

The shorter the time frame, the bigger the risk when it comes to the U.S. stock market as a whole. Money expert Clark Howard says that truly investing means five years at a minimum — preferably 10 years or more.

You may underperform the current average U.S. mortgage rate over a week, a month or even a few years. But over a decade or longer, it’s extremely unlikely.

Compound interest is one of the most powerful forces in finance. Take a relatively small amount of money — say, $50,000 and compound it at, say, 7% interest for 20 years. Add $5,000 per year into your investment. You’ll have nearly $225,000 after 20 years.

Start with $100,000 instead with the same interest rate. Add $10,000 per year for five years. You’ll have less than $200,000.

Funding your retirement is an important priority: one that takes discipline and time.

  • Higher return on investment. If your mortgage includes an interest rate of 5% or less, you should feel comfortable that you’ll be able to out-earn your loan on average. However, less time means more variation. Only consider doing this if you can leave the money in the stock market for at least five years. Preferably much longer.
  • More liquid investment. You may be able to take a loan against the equity in your home, depending on your circumstances. Otherwise, you’ll have to rent or sell the house to get spendable cash out of it. With investing, it’s much easier to sell off whatever percentage of your holdings you need.
  • Potential for tax benefits. If your company offers a 401(k), investing your money instead of using it to pay your mortgage can offer a nice tax benefit. You may even get a company match on some or all of the additional funds you contribute. The tax benefit also holds true for an IRA, although the maximum annual contribution limit is much lower. In addition to that, you can get a tax deduction for the interest you pay on your mortagage — assuming you itemize your deductions. That opportunity will vanish if you pay off your mortgage.

Why You Should Pay Off Your Mortgage Instead of Investing

Perhaps you got stuck with a higher-interest mortgage and don’t have the credit to refinance. Maybe you’ve got a loaded 401(k) account but you’re concerned about paying a mortgage on a fixed income when you retire. You may need to sell the house in the not-too-distant future and need to make sure you don’t owe more than it’s worth.

At any rate, there are some legitimate reasons to consider putting your extra money toward your mortgage rather than investing it.

  • Avoid risk. There are no guarantees to investing. If you follow Clark’s advice and stick to target date funds or broad index funds and ETFs, you’ll be taking on a lot less risk than if you put all your money into just a few individual stocks. Still, if you’re going to sell your investments in less than five years, you’re gambling. The shorter the time frame, the bigger the risk.
  • Gain peace of mind. There are times in personal finance where the mathematically correct thing isn’t the right decision for some people. If you’re constantly losing sleep and filled with anxiety about your debt, and potentially costing yourself some money is worth eradicating those feelings, it’s worth considering.
  • Finish your mortgage prior to retirement. Paying for a mortgage on a fixed income isn’t the best idea. At the same time, you can’t eat a house, as Clark said on his podcast recently. If you’re going to retire in the not-so-distant future, consider paying extra on your mortgage so you can get rid of it faster. The more on track you are with your retirement savings and the closer you are to retirement, the better idea it probably is to pay more toward your mortgage.
  • Increase cash flow. With any debt, you typically need cash every month in order to meet your minimum payment. That can remain the case for a very long time with a mortgage. In some circumstances, cash flow can be important. (Say, an investment opportunity or a new expense).
  • Avoid getting upside down. You don’t want to owe more money on your house than it’s worth. If the housing market crashes, especially in the early stages of your mortgage, that could happen. What if you need to move? You may be forced to rent your house, sell it at a big loss or stay put. Depending on your circumstances, it could make sense to make extra payments to avoid getting upside down.

Consider Checking These Off Your Financial List Before Investing or Paying Your Mortgage

It’s important to tackle the basics before you get too advanced.

First, if you have high-interest debt of any kind — credit card debt, for example — that’s the first thing you should put your money toward. Investing your money and hoping for an 8% annual return while paying the minimum on $10,000 of credit card debt with 18% interest makes no sense.

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You should also avoid stretching yourself so thin that you deplete your emergency fund. Don’t go all out to pay down your mortgage or invest to the point that you have nothing in your savings account. Financial “oops” happen, Clark likes to say. It’s a matter of when, not if, you’ll face unexpected expenses.

You don’t want to have to turn to credit cards to pay for your day-to-day life because all your money is tied into your mortgage or locked into investments with huge tax penalties if you sell early.


Final Thoughts

For most people, investing versus paying off your mortgage is a fairly simple decision. The further you are from retirement, the easier the decision usually is, especially if you got a good interest rate on your mortgage.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself to clarify where you should be putting your extra money.

  • When do you plan to retire?
  • How much money do you have set aside for retirement?
  • Relative to your planned retirement age, when will you pay off your mortgage if you only pay the minimum?
  • If you invest, how long will you be able to stay invested before cashing out?

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