To pay or not to pay? As much as I try not to invoke Shakespeare when weighing financial decisions, that is an important question to ask when considering paying off your mortgage before retirement. Do you want to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous interest rates or take up arms against a sea of noteholders, and by opposing, end them?
In other words, is it smarter to keep paying off that loan or to get rid of it so you can move forward with your new life in peace?
It’s a rare week when someone doesn’t ask me this question. Clients, radio and podcast callers, even friends—it seems like every single person wonders if, how, and when they should pay theirs off. It makes sense for the subject to draw so much heat seeing as a mortgage is often the biggest expense we take on in our lifetimes.
I’ll be upfront and honest right from the jump—there is no right answer. As a whole, financial professionals can’t seem to agree. Some implore you to keep your savings invested while others swear by the happiness that comes from removing the heavy burden of debt.
I believe that if you can afford to pay off your mortgage you would be well served to do so. The happiest retirees enter post-career life mortgage-free or within five years of the last payment. That opinion isn’t just a gut feeling, it’s the accumulation of extensive research from writing two books about happy retirees.
In “You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think” and my latest book “What the Happiest Retirees Know: 10 Habits for a Healthy, Secure, and Joyful Life” I found that the decision to this important question depends on many factors specific to your unique situation.
First off, figure out how your tax bill would be impacted by such a move. Most expect that paying off a mortgage leads to a juicy interest deduction come tax time but that could shrink once you retire for a couple of reasons. First off, your tax rate might be lower because instead of bringing in the big paycheck you’ll be collecting Social Security or a pension and drawing funds from the nest egg you spent all those years building. This often means your total taxable income will be lower.
Second, as the years pass more and more of your mortgage payments will directly pay down the principal rather than the interest. This consistently reduces the size of your mortgage interest deduction for your tax return over time.
Your other itemized deductions will likely be lower, too. Because you only receive a tax benefit to the extent that your itemized deductions exceed your standard deduction, you may see less of a tax break from mortgage payments. And remember that the recent tax laws ushered in increased standard deduction limits, so you may not be itemizing your deductions going forward anyway. All of that matters.
What about rates of return? Try comparing the benefits you expect to earn from the greener pastures of a post mortgage payoff to the benefits of keeping more of those funds in savings. Should you choose to pay off your mortgage, your rate of return is certain. You “earn” by saving the interest rate charged on your mortgage. If you choose to invest your savings, things are a little less clear.
The argument you’ll hear from the “keep the mortgage” folks is that you can earn more by leaving those savings invested despite continuing to pay interest on your house. As an example, these planners say that, instead of using $100,000 to pay off a 4% mortgage, you should invest it in the market, where you could see a return of, say, 8%. The result would be a net 4% gain of $4,000.
This logic looks good on paper, but may not hold up in the real world. As we all know, the market is an unpredictable gamble. You might see that 8% return but you might also see the market lag, stumble, or crash.
I’m a believer in the one-third rule. If you can pay off your mortgage with no more than one-third of your non-retirement savings, consider doing so. If you owe $50,000 and have $160,000 in savings, it could be a good idea to drop that on the mortgage. You’ll still have $110,000 in liquid assets to ease you along the retirement road.
One of the intangibles that makes this such a complex decision is that emotional health is just as important as financial health. Fearless folks might be able to roll the dice and keep all their savings invested in the market, but most of us need some sense of stability to sleep well at night.
The scenario of a market crash is hypothetical but the fear is real. Humans no longer need to run from saber-tooth predators to survive, but the reptilian parts of our brain don’t yet seem to know it. Any kind of perceived danger, whether it be from a Grizzly Bear or a bear market can cause the body to release fight-or-flight hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that can trigger intense anxiety.
Conversely, I’ve learned from the happiest retirees that there is a real sense of peace and serenity that comes with knowing that you own your house free and clear. It just feels good to have some stability as you enter a new phase of life that is changing in so many other ways.
Eliminating a house payment also dramatically lowers your monthly retirement living expenses, thus taking pressure off your nest egg and other sources of monthly income. Hopefully, you’ll have multiple streams, but they’ll be tributaries, not raging rapids. Having less of a nut to cover leaves you with more money to follow your dreams and passions, take vacations, give to charity, and keep up on your core pursuits (hobbies on steroids). After all, that’s what a happy retirement is all about. You’ve worked your entire life. Now it’s time to explore the things that you’ve never had time to try.
As crucial as it is to have peace of mind, you have to make sure you can afford it without damaging your financial fitness. It’s not a great idea to use retirement account (IRA, 401k) money to pay off a mortgage. Breaking your nest egg to enjoy a mortgage-free omelet does not make for a nutritious retirement meal.
Non-retirement accounts are the ideal sources for the big pay-off but be careful here, too. These funds also play an important part in your ongoing security by providing a source of liquidity for emergencies or opportunities. Use my one-third rule as a guide when deciding which route might work best for you. Even if you can’t allocate a large portion of capital toward your mortgage right now, it’s proactive to consider paying a little extra each month.
The house your mortgage paid for wasn’t built in a day. The carpenters, electricians, and laborers chipped away at it over time. In much the same way, you can hammer a few more financial nails with each payment, shave months or years off the finish date, and be well on your way to living a mortgage-free and happy life in retirement.