Q&A: They paid off the mortgage rather than save for retirement. Now what?

Dear Liz: My wife and I aggressively paid down our mortgage and now have it paid off, but we don’t have much saved for retirement. I make about $90,000 a year and will receive a teacher’s pension that will replace between 30% and 60% of that (depending on what option we choose) when I retire in about 10 years. It probably won’t be enough to live on. We will receive no Social Security benefits. We have no other debts, and we would like to make up for lost time as best we can on retirement preparation. What is your best advice for people like us who have diligently paid off their mortgage but have not diligently put money away for retirement?

Answer: The older you get, the harder it is to make up for lost time with retirement savings. You probably can’t do it if retirement is just a few years away.

This is not to make you feel bad, but to serve as a warning for others tempted to prioritize paying off a mortgage over saving for retirement.

If you’re in your 50s, you’d typically need to save nearly half your income to equal what you could have accumulated had you put aside just 10% of your pay starting in your 20s. The miracle of compounding means even small contributions have decades to grow into considerable sums. Without the benefit of time, your contributions can’t grow as much so you have to put aside more.

But you can certainly save aggressively and consider a few alternatives for your later years.

Once you hit 50, you can benefit from the ability to make “catch up” contributions. For example, if you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 403(b), you can contribute as much as $26,000 — the $19,500 regular limit plus a $6,500 additional contribution for those 50 and older.

You and your spouse also can contribute as much as $7,000 each to an IRA; whether those contributions are deductible depends on your income and whether you’re covered by a workplace plan. If you’re covered, your ability to deduct your contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $105,000 to $125,000 for married couples filing jointly. If your spouse isn’t covered by a workplace plan but you are, her ability to deduct her contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $198,000 to $208,000. (All figures are for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct the contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead because withdrawals from a Roth are tax free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $198,000 and $208,000 for married couples filing jointly.

If possible, a part-time job in retirement could be extremely helpful in making ends meet. So could downsizing or tapping your home equity with a reverse mortgage. A fee-only financial planner could help you sort through your options, as well as help you figure out the best way to take your pension when the time comes.

Q&A: Taking out a reverse mortgage may help if coronavirus wipes out your job

Dear Liz: I read with interest the letter from the person who was a tour guide and lost their job due to the virus. I kept reading, expecting you to suggest a reverse mortgage. Are these a bad idea?

Answer: Not necessarily. The person in question owned the home with a sibling, and the sibling did not live in the home, which could complicate the process of getting a reverse mortgage.

If there was substantial equity in the home, however, a reverse mortgage could pay off the existing mortgage and might be worth the effort. One way to investigate this option is to talk to a HUD-approved housing counseling agency.

Q&A: The ups and downs of reverse mortgages

Dear Liz: I have been a reverse mortgage specialist for the last 12 years and had some thoughts about the writer who complained that the $40,000 she initially borrowed had grown to a debt of $189,000, or more than her home was worth.

Using a compound interest calculator, it would take about 16.5 years for the debt to grow that large. The borrower would have lived in their home for all that time without making payments toward the debt, although they were still responsible for taxes, insurance and maintaining the property. They can stay in the home for as long as it’s their principal residence. Once they leave the home, the lender will sell the home and receive the difference between the sales price and the loan balance from the government insurance program that everyone with a reverse mortgage pays into. Otherwise, no lender would take out this loan for a potentially long term and risk losing money in the end. Maybe it was a good deal.

Answer: Possibly, but she regretted the decision anyway. She took out a reverse mortgage at a time of financial hardship and now wishes she hadn’t.

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People facing financial crises often develop tunnel vision and grab at solutions without thinking through the future costs of their decisions. (The excellent book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explains the science of why that happens.)

Advertising for these loans can gloss over the downsides, such as potentially not being able to tap your equity later, when you may need it more. Reverse mortgages can be a good solution for some seniors but certainly not all of them.

Q&A: Don’t keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: Does the new tax law, with its increased standard deduction, change the calculus of maintaining my mortgage? I owe about $250,000 at 3.25% on a 30-year mortgage. I no longer itemize, so I don’t get the benefit of the tax deduction for the interest. My payments are about $1,500 a month, but I could easily pay it off.

Answer: It never made much sense to keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction. The tax savings offset only a portion of the interest you pay. (If you’re in a 33% combined state and federal tax bracket, for example, you’d get at most 33 cents back for every $1 in mortgage interest you paid.)

A more compelling reason to keep a mortgage would be if you were able to get a better return on your money by investing it, or if you didn’t want to have a big chunk of your wealth tied up in a single, illiquid asset.

Q&A: Mortgage payoff pros and cons

Dear Liz: Should we use a $350,000 inherited non-spousal Roth IRA to pay off our mortgage? We have $285,000 left on our mortgage and would like to retire within 10 years. This is our dream home, and we don’t think we can otherwise pay it off before retiring. We have $1.1 million in other retirement accounts, an emergency fund, a $40,000 pension, and no other debt. Our home is worth $900,000.

Answer: In general, paying off a mortgage before retirement makes a lot of sense. Doing so reduces the amount of money you need to take from retirement funds, which can help make those funds last longer.

Being mortgage-free is not a goal you should pursue at any cost, however. You could end up having too much money tied up in your house and not enough in savings or investments. Also, the inherited Roth has significant advantages. Although you must take minimum distributions from the account, those are tax free and can be based on your life expectancy, which means the bulk of the money can continue growing for quite some time.

Q&A: Why not to prepay a mortgage

Dear Liz: I want to save interest by making biweekly mortgage payments. My loan company said I couldn’t do that, but I wondered if there was a way by first paying the monthly mortgage and then making a half payment mid-month toward the next month’s due date, to get started. Then I’d make another half payment at the beginning of the following month. Ideally, this would all be arranged with autopay. I’m retired with a 4%, 30-year mortgage that has a $1,900 monthly payment and my retirement accounts are currently paying better returns.

Answer: You actually won’t save any interest until your mortgage is paid off, which could be 25 years from now if your mortgage is relatively recent. And getting a better return from your investments is a good reason not to accelerate your mortgage payments. You also shouldn’t prepay a mortgage if you have any other debt, lack a substantial emergency fund or are inadequately insured. (Those who are still working also should be maxing out their retirement contributions before making extra mortgage payments.)

With a biweekly payment plan, you’d pay half your monthly mortgage payment every two weeks. Instead of making 12 payments a year, you make the equivalent of 13 payments. Paying the extra amount helps you pay off the mortgage sooner. A bi-weekly payment plan would shave about four years off a $400,000 mortgage at 4%. The interest savings kick in once you’re mortgage-free. Then you’d save the $47,000 or so in interest you’d otherwise pay in the final years of the loan.

If you’re determined to do this, you should talk to your mortgage lender, because the arrangement you’re describing sounds a lot like the biweekly payments it won’t accept. You could hire a company that specializes in these arrangements, but the fees you pay for the service detract from your savings and aren’t really necessary. Instead, consider simply making an extra payment against the principal each month. Ask your lender how to set this up with autopay so that you’re actually paying principal. Otherwise, the extra amount might just be applied to the next month’s payment, defeating the purpose.