Q&A: Mortgage payoff or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: My husband was laid off recently, and he quickly took a new job with a 25% pay cut to continue insurance benefits and the same retirement program. We regularly pay $500 to $1,300 extra on our house payment. We cannot keep that up. However, with his severance package and vacation day payout, we now have more in our bank account than we owe on our mortgage. If we paid off the $80,000 mortgage now (house is valued at $600,000), we’d have an emergency fund of only $10,000, but we could replenish those savings slowly each month with no house payment. We have no other debts. How do we know when is the right time to pay off the mortgage?

Answer: Think about what would happen if you paid off the mortgage and your husband were to be laid off again or you suffered some other financial setback. The $10,000 left in your emergency fund could be depleted quickly. If you don’t have stocks or other assets you could sell, you might have to raid your retirement accounts or turn to high-cost loans.

This is why financial planners recommend having an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses if possible — and why using your savings to pay off a low-rate debt might not be the best use of your money.

If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, consider setting up a home equity line of credit first. That will give you a relatively inexpensive source of credit in an emergency.

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