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.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Want a raise in 2021? You may not even need to ask for it. Also in the news: How to be effective with your generosity in 2020, how to prepare for student loan payments to restart in 2021, and what to do if you’re behind on your rent or mortgage.

Want a Raise in 2021? You May Not Even Need to Ask for It
If you got a big tax refund last year, changing your W-4 form at work could put more money in your pocket now.

How to Be Effective With Your Generosity in 2020
Where your money can do the most good.

How to Prepare for Student Loan Payments to Restart in 2021
Time’s almost up.

Behind on your rent or mortgage? Here’s what to do
Important steps to follow.

Q: They paid off the mortgage. Then the credit score fell. Can that be right?

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently paid off our mortgage. We have no other debt. Soon after, I received a message from Experian that my FICO score, which has been perfect for quite a while, was reduced by 31 points. What justifies such action, and what do I need to do to bring up my score?

Answer: Credit scores were never intended to be a measure of anyone’s financial health. Instead, they were created to help lenders gauge the risk that an applicant would default on a loan or credit card debt.

Having a mix of types of credit, including installment loans (such as a mortgage) and revolving accounts (such as credit cards), generally helps your credit score. Because the mortgage was your only installment loan, that could have led to a larger-than-normal effect on your scores.

If your previous score was “perfect,” or 850 on the FICO scale, then there’s nothing you need to do. Once your scores are over about 760, you’re getting the best rates and terms, and there’s typically no other benefit to shoot for, other than bragging rights.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Is my money safe in a bank during the COVID-19 crisis? Also in the news: Helping home buyers keep their distance with e-closings, what kinds of credit card relief are available during the pandemic, and how to save for retirement while on unemployment.

Is My Money Safe in a Bank During the COVID-19 Crisis?
Should you be worried about your accounts?

Mortgage E-closing: Helping Home Buyers Keep Their Distance
Changes during the pandemic.

COVID-19: What Kinds of Credit Card Relief Can You Request?
Several options are being offered.

How to Save for Retirement While on Unemployment
Saving for the future is still important.

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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if Hurricane Dorian hits your home and mortgage. Also in the news: How to fall in love with your car again without breaking the bank, drink up savings at Starbucks, and why you should add cash to your car’s emergency kit.

What to Do If Hurricane Dorian Hits Your Home, Mortgage
What to do first.

Fall in Love With Your Car Again Without Breaking the Bank
Rekindle an old flame.

Drink Up Savings at Starbucks
Just in time for Pumpkin Spice Latte season.

Add Cash to Your Car’s Emergency Kit
But don’t leave it on the dashboard.

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.

Q&A: Limiting your rate shopping window

Dear Liz: We’re planning to refinance our mortgage and are concerned about generating multiple credit inquiries which would lower our excellent credit scores. Is there some kind of licensed, bonded ethical middle-agent who could get just one official credit report from each of the three bureaus and then send it to all the lenders I designate? Our FICOs are so good that we want lenders to compete for our refi business but don’t want the process itself to lower FICOs just for inquiries only.

Answer: The FICO formula has you covered. With the FICO scores most lenders use, multiple mortgage inquiries made within a 45-day window are aggregated together and counted as one. Furthermore, any inquiries made within the previous 30 days are ignored entirely. That allows you to rate shop for mortgages without dramatically affecting your scores.

The FICO formula extends this “de-duplication” process to two other types of borrowing: auto loans and student loans. Only similar types of inquiries are grouped together, however. If you shopped for both mortgages and auto loans, then two inquiries eventually would be factored into your credit scores, rather than just one.

Credit cards, personal loans and other types of borrowing don’t get the same treatment. If you apply for two credit cards while shopping for a mortgage, you would have three inquiries — two that are immediately factored into your scores and a third that would be counted after 30 days had passed.

Also, some lenders use older versions of the FICO formula that have a shorter rate-shopping window — 14 days instead of 45. If you want to be absolutely sure your mortgage shopping has a minimal impact on your scores, you can limit your shopping to that two-week period.

Q&A: How to boost your credit score before you buy a house

Dear Liz: I am trying to purchase my first home. I have a 20% down payment for the price range that I am looking for. The issue I am running into is that I have relatively new credit and my credit score is not great at all. I had to go to the emergency room two years back with no insurance and have medical expenses that went into collections. I am now in a financial spot to pay them off. These are the only negatives on my credit report that are unresolved. Will paying these off get my credit to the point that I can buy a home? I am lost as to how to get my score where it needs to be.

Answer: Unfortunately, paying collection accounts typically doesn’t help your credit scores, especially the scores used by most mortgage lenders.

Since you’re new to credit, you may not realize that you don’t have just one credit score. You have many. The two major types are FICO and VantageScore. The latest versions of each (FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0), ignore paid collections. In addition, FICO 9 and VantageScore 4.0 count unpaid medical collections less heavily against you than other unpaid debts.

But mortgage lenders typically use much older versions of the FICO score, which count all collections against you even if they’re paid.

That said, it would be tough to get a mortgage with unpaid collections on your credit report. Since you have the cash, you may be able to negotiate discounts so that you can resolve these debts at a somewhat lower cost. (Collectors typically would much rather get a lump-sum settlement than wait to be paid over time.)

You’ll also want to get some positive information reported to the credit bureaus to help offset the negative information. The fastest way to do that would be to persuade someone you know who has good credit to add you as an authorized user to one of his or her credit cards. This person doesn’t have to give you the card or any access to the account. Typically, the account history will be “imported” to your credit reports, which can help your scores as long as the person continues to use the card responsibly.

Another way to add positive information is with a credit-builder loan, offered by many credit unions and Self Lender, an online loan site. Usually, credit-builder loans put the money you borrow into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. This helps you build savings at the same time you’re building your credit.

Secured credit cards also can help. With a secured card, you make a deposit with the issuing bank of $200 or more. You get a credit limit that’s typically equal to that deposit. Making small charges on the account and paying it off in full every month can help you build credit without paying interest. You’ll want a card that reports to all three credit bureaus, because mortgage lenders typically pull FICO scores from all three bureaus and use the middle of the three scores to determine your rate and terms.