… that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to be free of debt, or to invest, perchance to dream of outrageous fortune.
If you thought I was going to continue writing in pseudo-Shakespeare, you don’t know me very well. Or maybe you know me too well, because I do love a good writing challenge.
There’s a lot of debate in the personal finance community about whether you should pay off your mortgage early if you can afford to. I’ll share my opinion on that in a little bit. Before I do, I want to make it clear that this is a topic with no definitive answer. Even with my own strong feelings on this one, I can look at the other side and say, “I understand and appreciate your view.”
So if you aren’t going to find any definitive answers, why continue reading? It might help you decide what is best for you and your situation.
Let’s review what each camp has to offer:
Pay Off Your Mortgage Early
There’s a psychological weight to being in debt. While most will agree that mortgage debt (especially at current rates) is good, responsible debt, it is still debt. Until you’ve paid off your mortgage, it’s likely your biggest expense. After you’ve paid off your mortgage, it may be transportation, or food, or property tax. You are a lot closer to financial independence when you eliminate such a big expense like a mortgage.
There’s also a component of certainty. If you have a 5% mortgage, you are getting a guaranteed 5% return on your money by paying off the mortgage early. You can’t get that in a bank account – especially now. You can’t get any kind of guarantee in the stock market which can move in crazy directions from day to day. We’ve seen that happen a lot this year.
Invest the Mortgage Money Instead
Another school of thought is that it’s best to invest any extra money instead. Most people expect the stock market to earn about 7% or more over the long run. That’s a lot better than most of the mortgage rates out there which are probably around 4% (or could be less with refinancing).
Most mortgages are 30 years long – plenty long enough to smooth out the gyrations of day-to-day stock market. Even 15-years (like the other popular fixed mortgage option) is almost always enough time to see stronger returns on stocks.
Almost no one disputes the math of investing in stocks is better than mortgage debt. Even the people in the “pay off your mortgage early” camp typically won’t argue the math. Instead they’ll point to the psychological benefits of alleviating the burden of debt. They’ll also point to the guaranteed X% return noted above.
My Choice: Pay Off Mortgage or Invest?
I strongly prefer mathematical solutions to psychological ones. Sometimes our brains play tricks on us. Math is consistent – it doesn’t play tricks on us.
Let’s say that I have $200,000 left on my mortgage (4%) and somehow lucked into $200,000 (it’s hypothetical, work with me). That mortgage has 25 years left on it. If I pay off the mortgage right away, I’ll save myself from having to pay $533,167 in mortgage payments and interest [Calculation: ((1.04^25)*200000)]. That sounds like a great move. However, if I invest instead, I would have $1,085,486 [Calculation: ((1.07^25)*200000)]. There are some minor things like taxes and inflation to consider, but they are not enough to make up for the fact that investing is mathematically speaking almost twice as good as paying off early.
I’ve heard some people say that they are so happy that they paid off their mortgage – especially now*. With unemployment so high and income so uncertain, being mortgage-free has to be a great stress reducer.
However, we’ve been saving and investing since we bought our house in 2012. We’ve enjoyed a fantastic ride on the stock market. However, even if it was an average ride, we’d have enough saved up that we could choose to be mortgage-free as fast as the banks can make the money move.** Plus we’d have a lot of money left over. That’s what I consider my great stress reducer.
One of the problems I have with paying off your mortgage faster is that the money is gone right away. You don’t have the money under your control any more. If you put all $200,000 into paying off the mortgage, lose your job, and your car breaks down, can you come up with the money to fix it? If you’ve invested the money and still have control of it, you can continue to make mortgage payments, fix your car, and eat if you lose your job. You have the money to buy you time in making all those payments in such a terrible scenario.
As strong as I feel about investing, we went with a middle ground. We got a 15-year mortgage with a lower interesting rate (a very, very nice bonus!). This forces us to pay off the mortgage earlier than most people. This past weekend, a friend of mine said that she’d never be able to pay off her mortgage. (It’s done in 2037, which can feel like never, but probably comes up on us quicker than we think.) In 2012, it seemed like 2027 would be “forever”, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore.
We are also able to save money each month to invest. We saved and invested a lot over the last decade. I feel that a 15 year mortgage is ideal if you have the income.
Final Thoughts on Paying Off Mortgages Early
I was inspired to write this by an article that had nothing to do with mortgages. Miranda Marquit wrote about her Taxable Investment Account/Emergency Fund and I thought, “That’s somewhat similar.”
Most gurus would say that you shouldn’t put your emergency fund in a taxable investment account. Emergency funds should be very safe liquid investments. However, she has a tiered approach with some safe liquid cash and more in invested in equities. It’s worked out very well for her and provides her with a larger emergency fund today than she would have had otherwise:
This tiered approach allows me immediate access to cash while I liquidate investments. It works for me because I end up with a higher rate of return with the money in a taxable investment account. For example, I’ve got a 13.3% cumulative time-weighted return with the taxable investment account, since the beginning of 2010, when my return with my savings account has been 3.6%.
Marquit has some safety, but also a lot of growth. This seems similar to investing with extra money instead of paying off your mortgage early. I feel I get that safety of control over the money, while growing my nest egg for more safety (or enjoyment) down the line.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
* Is that the 4th or 5th time I made use of “especially now”?
** Most of our investments are in retirement accounts, so we would get a penalty if we cashed out to pay off our mortgage. However, we could do a partial cash out of a little of our investment profits to buy us a year or two of mortgage payments.