From Charles Schwab & Co.

Some people enjoy the peace of mind that comes with being debt-free in retirement. But warm and fuzzy feelings should be weighed against solid financial facts. Whether it makes sense to pay off your mortgage when — or before — you retire depends on your individual situation.

The interest rate on your mortgage may be the single biggest factor in this decision, according to Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “If the rate on the mortgage is low, an early mortgage payoff might not be the best option,” he says. “It may be better to maintain liquidity of your funds and diversify your assets.”

Should you pay or stay? Rande says you should consider these factors when deciding whether to retire your mortgage or keep it:

Reasons to Retire your Mortgage

Future limited or reduced income stream

Your monthly mortgage payment may represent a significant chunk of your income. Eliminating this payment can greatly reduce the amount of cash you need to meet monthly expenses.

Savings on interest

Depending on the length of your mortgage term and the size of your debt, you may pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in interest. Paying off your mortgage early frees up that future money for other uses. While you would lose the mortgage interest tax deduction, the after-tax savings on the cost of the debt can still be substantial. Besides, as you get closer to paying off your loan, more of each monthly payment goes to principal and less to interest, so the amount you can deduct in taxes decreases.

A predictable return

While there’s a potential upside to keeping the loan and investing your money elsewhere, market fluctuations could curtail the gains on your investments — or even reduce their value. On the other hand, by no longer paying interest on your loan, paying it off can be like earning the equivalent risk-free interest rate.

Peace of mind

For folks who feel it’s important to be debt-free, Rande acknowledges that the numbers aren’t everything. If you do decide to pay off your mortgage early, he advises that you tap funds from taxable accounts first. “Withdrawals from IRA or 401(k) accounts will be taxed as ordinary income in the year they’re withdrawn, reducing the effective savings on mortgage interest expense,” he notes. “On the other hand, using cash from taxable accounts could lower the total tax bill, assuming the cash is already available and you don’t have to pay significant capital gains taxes to raise the cash in the process.”

Reasons to Keep your Mortgage

Not-so-full nest egg

If you haven’t contributed the maximum amount to your 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts, you should do these things first before paying off your mortgage.

Higher-interest debt

You should consider using extra cash to pay off other kinds of debt that carry higher interest rates, especially non-deductible debt, such as credit card balances, before you pay down the mortgage.

Lower cash reserves

The money you use to pay off your mortgage could significantly reduce the amount of cash you have available for general expenses, discretionary spending and emergencies. And keep in mind that it’s recommended you have up to six months’ worth of living expenses tucked away, just in case. Before retiring your mortgage, make sure you have enough cash to cover your needs, minus income you’ll receive from non-portfolio sources such as Social Security or pensions. This reserve should cover the cost of property taxes, insurance and home maintenance. You don’t want to end up being “house-rich and cash-poor.”

Opportunity costs

While you don’t need to worry about volatility when paying off a mortgage, you do risk losing out on potential gains you might have made by investing the money elsewhere. Just don’t get overly optimistic about your potential to generate above-market returns without taking a lot of risk. One simple way to determine if investing the funds is a better option than paying off the mortgage is by comparing the mortgage interest rate to the after-tax rate of return on a low-risk investment with a similar term — such as a high-quality, tax-free municipal bond. If the rate of return on a potential investment is lower than the interest rate of your mortgage, you may want to reconsider investing those funds.

Diversifying your investments

One of the best ways to try to increase opportunities for growth at a reasonable level of acceptable risk is to hold a variety of investments in different asset classes, both domestic and international. Tying up significant funds in your home equity limits that possibility — and even if your house appreciates in value, you would have to either sell or refinance it to tap into that equity.

A possible move

If you contemplate moving in the next few years, you might as well carry the existing mortgage until then.

If your mortgage has no prepayment penalty, an alternative to paying it off entirely is paying down the principal. You can do this by making an extra principal payment each month or by sending in a partial lump sum. This tactic can save a significant amount of interest and pay off the loan much quicker while preserving liquidity and diversification. In some circumstances, refinancing with a lower interest rate may make sense.

The Bottom Line

Does it make sense to pay off your mortgage before you retire?

Do the math

A mortgage calculator can help you weigh the facts and figures of your particular situation.

Think it through

Weigh the emotional impact as well as the financial facts. Paying off debt can bring peace of mind, but it may feel like a risk to part with the cash.


About LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to retirement plan sponsors. The firm currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than $400 million in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or or visit the firm’s website at Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.

Additional Important Disclosures

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve. This information does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal, or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner, or investment manager. Tax-exempt bonds are not necessarily a suitable investment for all persons. Information related to a security’s tax-exempt status (federal and in-state) is obtained from third-parties and Schwab does not guarantee its accuracy. Tax-exempt income may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Capital appreciation from bond funds and discounted bonds may be subject to state or local taxes. Capital gains are not exempt from federal income tax.