Dear Liz: My husband and I are fortunate to be in relatively good financial shape. We both plan to retire in 10 years when we turn 60. We have zero credit card debt and no loans except our mortgage, which is at 4.5% for 15 years. With any additional funds should we max out our 401(k) contributions, contribute to Roth IRAs or pay down the mortgage?
Answer: Generally, you’ll want to make sure you’re on track for retirement before paying down a mortgage. Your priority usually should be contributing at least enough to your 401(k)s to get the full company match, and then contributing the maximum to Roth IRAs. This puts money in retirement “buckets” that get different tax treatment — withdrawals from 401(k)s are typically taxable as income, while Roth IRA withdrawals typically are tax free — and that allows you to have more control over your tax bill in retirement.
If you have additional money to contribute to your goals, you’ll have to decide whether to pay down your mortgage, put more into your 401(k) or contribute to a taxable account earmarked for retirement. (This latter option would give you yet another tax bucket — one where you can qualify for capital gains tax rates.)
It’s good to be mortgage-free when you stop work, but if your retirement savings aren’t adequate, you should be bolstering them now. Ten years from retirement is a good time to consult with a fee-only financial planner to discuss your individual situation, reality-test your retirement plans and fine-tune your investments.