Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Paying off Your Mortgage or Financing Your Retirement

I have had numerous conversations over the past week with some financial friends of mine about the idea of paying off your mortgage or funding your 401(k). The question, which I posed with a sort of bias, suggested that carting a mortgage into retirement was among the worst things you could do. So if that is the case, what should Boomers or late Boomers do?

In spite of the bleak economic news posted last week, the economy is not as bad for the majority of us as it is portrayed in the media. It is difficult however to ignore the plight our neighbors are going through, the prolonged unemployment, the forced early retirement, the underwater mortgages that are, if anything, keeping them from getting back on their feet. But the vast majority of us understand now that we need to take care of our personal finances - seemingly much more personal now than they were in the past - and that will quite possibly help the overall recovery. The more stable footing we have, the greater the chances our impact on the economy improves.

But today, I thought I'd focus on making the decisions you may have not considered: Is paying down the mortgage better than maxing out your 401(k)?

We often focus on the 401(k), the self driven retirement plan many of us have at work as the be-all-to-end-all retirement plan. It comes close but only as close as your debt in retirement allows. If you are headed towards retirement with a home mortgage, calculating the net downside of that mortgage can give you even more pressure to work more, contribute more or simply put off your retirement until a later date.

In every calculation about retirement, money stands front and center to its success. But you need a place to live and the vast majority of Americans looking at retirement in the next ten-years have a house payment saddling their plans. So I thought I'd run some numbers and offer some suggestions.

Although the actual numbers vary on where you live, $200,000 is about the average home price. A 30 year mortgage with a 6% rate will cost you about $1200 a month in mortgage payments with taxes and insurance excluded. These are rough and rounded numbers. Now if you were able to make a $100 a month additional payment, $1200 divided by 12, and apply it to the principal, the savings in total interest would be about $48,000 and it would shorten the loan by over 5yrs. So an extra $100 applied to principal would turn your 30 year mortgage into a 25 year mortgage.

The math gets better the more you pay. For instance, make a thirteenth and fourteen month payment (and for these calculations to work, you need to do it every month, not just once a year - although that's not a bad way to use the out-sized tax return) you would save almost $79,000 in interest payments and the loan would now be for 21 years. No paper work, no refinancing, no hassle and you just theoretically made $79,000.

How much would you have made had you invested the same amount in your 401(k)? Keep in mind, your mortgage is fixed at 6% and your 401(k), no matter what you invest in will have some fluctuation over time and it may never successfully return you a steady 6%. But the numbers go something like this: Invest $100 a month for 360 months at 6% return will net you a $12,000 a year income in retirement for ten-years. This means that if you are 45 and save a paltry $100 a month in your 401(k) - and I hope you are investing more than that - you will get a monthly payout for ten-years of about your mortgage payment.

But the difference is what you saved compared to what you will have to continue to pay for the loan. One allows you to enter retirement in full ownership of you house; the other gives you the ability to pay your mortgage with your retirement income. Even retirement planning neophytes can determine the benefits of having no loan and an income rather than having the income to maintain a loan.

I used an average $40,000 household income as an example and $100 as the contribution to the principal. If you were to make a contribution to your 401(k) of just $25 a week based on that income, you would come out with the results I have offered here. But if you were able to make both - a $25 a week contribution to your 401(k), which is just about 4% and make a $25 contribution to mortgage pre-payment plan, you will have only taken about $200 off the monthly budget.

The trade-off seems even but having a paid-for home in retirement gives you an great deal of economic peace of mind in terms of known worth, the potential to reverse mortgage the house and the ability to borrow against it should it come down to it. We have to live somewhere and this insures that where you live will be what you own.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer.
Be sure to check out Paul's new book available on Amazon, designed as an ongoing series. This ebook contains the Introduction and the first two chapters is on sale for only $2.99. 
Target 2025 (Ten Steps to a Secure Retirement)


Adam said...

Having a paid mortgage clearly provides better options, as opposed to maximizing a 401K. We will always need a place to live, and one option of owning a home outright, or small principal amount, is the opportunity to sell and downsize. Buying a less expensive, smaller home will provide the opportunity to invest the extra money to help offset inflation.

jackie100 said...

Behind the argument for not paying off your mortgage is the reasoning that you could invest the extra money and earn a higher return, while keeping your money more liquid. That may have been a good reason in the past but the rate of return on investing now is more questionable, compared to the fact that every dollar paid to reduce a mortgage balance provides a guaranteed return equal to the interest rate on the mortgage.

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Selena said...

It does seem like a complex conundrum: the mortgage or the 401(k)? Math and money are complicated subjects which a person has to deal with as he grows older. In the end, what matters is peace of mind - that you do not have to worry about debts as you reach retirement age.

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Unknown said...

Paying off your mortgage does reduce the number of AHMSI complaints. The less you have to worry about the better.

StephaniePumphrey said...

This makes bill payments more manageable and the rate is usually lower, helping you pay off your debts sooner.

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