Figuring out what the best thing to do with your money is can be difficult. Many people get caught up in all of the possibilities. They wonder is it wise to pay off your house mortgage? Should they pay off credit cards or put higher down payment on a new home? Should I pay off my car loan with home equity loan? Is it better to pay off your house or keep the money? And, most of all, should I pay my house off at retirement.
We have discussed if it is smart to pay off your home early before.
Unless paying off your home still leaves you with a sizable amount of cashable assets, the answer usually is not what you think. For people without substantial assets remaining after paying off the mortgage, owning your house free and clear does nothing but trap a lot of money where you can’t get it, inside your house. Financial professionals call the equity in your home that you are not going to sell “dead equity.”
Here is what to do with your assets before you pay off your mortgage, and also, a quick look at understanding the pros and cons of a reverse mortgage.
Reverse Mortgage Mythology
The first thing out of many people’s mouth when they come to see me with a ton of equity and no retirement savings is “reverse mortgage.” Sometime in the next decade you’ll see a major government campaign to clear up the misconceptions around reverse mortgages as more and more baby boomers find themselves unable to support themselves because they were counting on a reverse mortgage.
For a sobering reality check visit our reverse mortgage explanation, or the AARP Reverse Mortgage Calculator. This subject is an area full of scams and con-artists. (Searching for “reverse mortgage” is a recipe for disaster.)
The guys in our example above can get between $150,000 and $200,000 in a reverse mortgage if the owners are 75. Want one at 65? As low as $65,000. Keep in mind that once you take a reverse mortgage, you are no longer the owner of the home for borrowing purposes, so you CANNOT get a home equity loan of any kind after you get a reverse mortgage. How long do you think $65,000 will last in retirement?
What To Do?
Obviously since this is an article on the psychology of money, I am well aware that you might want to pay off your mortgage anyway. If so, here is the smart way to go about it.
- Cash Reserve – If you don’t have 6 months worth of expenses in a non-retirement account (not a 401(k) or IRA) then save money into a money market account first. Only after you have six months worth of savings should you consider paying off your mortgage.
- Worse Loans – If you have ANY OTHER kind of loan you are better off paying it off first. Most important is to pay off all credit card debt. That’s right, all. Every cent. If you have any credit card debt you are an idiot for sending extra money to your mortgage. I can’t be any plainer than that. Be sure to maximize the credit cards you do have by taking advantage of credit card reward programs like the Capital One rewards and Citibank rewards. Also, pay off student loans and car loans first. Don’t bother paying off a car lease. With most leases you pay all the interest whether you pay it off early or not, so don’t bother.
- Retirement – If you are not saving at least 10% of your salary into your 401(k), then do not send extra money to your mortgage. Instead, increase your contribution to your 401(k). You will need an account built up of many years worth of 10% savings in order to retire comfortably and PAY FOR YOUR HOUSE’s non-mortgage expenses. If you get a lump sum of money, then put it in a money market account, increase your 401(k) contribution and use withdrawals from the money market account to make up the shortfall in your paycheck. By the way, if you are over 50 and your 401(k) balance isn’t north of $300,000 then go 15% ASAP and don’t bother with the mortgage.
- Major Expenses – Don’t be near sighted. Scan the horizon for major up-coming expenses. Want to know where to look? Try a glance at your kids first. How many years until college? Are you where you want to be for helping them out? If Annie is 16 years old and you have an extra $20,000 do you think the smart move is to pay $20,000 on your mortgage today and then get a $20,000 home equity loan in 2 years? (The answer is no.)
- Does Another Option Sound Safe Too? – Many people who pay off their mortgage do so because it sounds “safe”. Ask yourself if anything else would make you feel just as safe. For example, if you had a $200,000 mortgage and $100,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds would that make you feel safe? (Savings Bonds are garbage by the way, it was just an example.)
- Feel O.K. About Paying in Chunks? – Most people pay off their mortgage early by sending extra money in with their payments. I myself round up to the next $100 just because it makes me feel good and it doesn’t have any overall impact. But, if you are sending an extra $500 or $1,000 a month consider the “Big Extra Payment” strategy. Instead of sending an extra $1,000 to the mortgage company, put it in a money market account. Wait 15 or 20 months. Now, if you still want to pay early on your mortgage you can send in $15,000 or $20,000 all at once. The interest you pay in the meantime will be equalized by the amount you earned on the savings. This way, if something happens, say in month 13, you’ll have $13,000 that you can replace the roof with (or whatever) instead of scrambling to come up with the dough.
Tons of people proudly tell me how they claim less withholdings on their W-4 than they have to because then they get a big refund when they do their taxes. You’ve heard all about how this is a dumb strategy because it’s the same thing as giving the government and interest free loan. They do it anyway. Why?
For most people an extra $200 in their paycheck is something they just spend without ever noticing. But, $2,400 all at once is something that they would do something smart with. For these people, the “forced savings” plan of low-balling your W-4 withholdings is the only way they’ll ever save money. I suppose it is better than nothing.
A similar kind of person likes the idea of paying off their mortgage early for the same reason. The theory is that if they saved $500 a month, then eventually they would notice $5,000 in the bank and they would blow it on a vacation or a car. Instead, if they send $500 a month to the mortgage company then they won’t have that extra money so they won’t spend it.
You know yourself better than anyone else and if this describes you then by all means, do what works for you. I’m the first one to say that financial planning is about more than the math. It’s about what will actually work. So, send the extra money to your mortgage company, but do yourself a favor and see if you can’t work on building the financial savvy and discipline that would help you in the long run. Maybe send $400 to the mortgage company and save $100. Put the $100 someplace it’s harder to get to like at a bank a four-hour drive away. Don’t setup online access and cut up the ATM card the second you get it. Then, that $100 will build up and you won’t be able to spend it on a whim. With the extra time to think about it, you might just find that you have the discipline after all.
If you do manage to pay off your house, congratulations. It is a noble goal and I am not speaking against it. In fact, the best retirement planning I do is for people with their house paid off. But, it has to be that they have their house paid off AND they have significant savings. Planning for someone with no mortgage and $700,000 is a joy. Trying to squeeze a budget out of $250,000 even with no mortgage is an exercise in bargain shopping and cutting down to the bare necessities.
Just understand that there are many factors to be taken into consideration. Once you have looked at all the factors, then pay the darn thing off. I’ll be the first to shake your hand.