Coffee heat rising

Should you pay off your mortgage?

Preparing to write the next installment in a series on achieving financial freedom, I ran some figures to compare the result of paying down a mortgage with extra monthly payments toward principal with investing the same amount monthly in a mutual fund. What I discovered runs against my theory that you’re well served to pay off a mortgage as fast as you can.

I still think that’s true if you’re getting close to retirement. In retirement, every debt should be wiped off your books, because you will need all your cash flow to live on. However, if you’re younger—say, anywhere between 20 and 45—and your mortgage rate is low compared to returns on equity investments, it would be to your advantage to invest extra dollars in a mutual fund earning around 8 percent. At today’s rates, this strategy allow you to accrue enough to pay off the principal faster than will throwing a monthly amount at the loan principal. Here’s how this shakes down:

M’hijito and I have a 30/15 mortgage at 4.3 percent. This means that for the first 15 years, we make payments at the 30-year amortization rate, but after the 15 years have passed, we either have to pay off the loan or we have to refinance it. The loan’s principal is $211,000.

We chose this mortgage because, at the time we bought the house, we believed the real estate market was nearing the bottom. We believed the house would drop in value another $4,000 or $5,000 and then begin to rise, probably at around 3 percent p/a. We figured that in five to ten years we could sell or rent the house and either break even or make a small profit. As everyone now knows, this was dead wrong: in fact, real estate was in free-fall, and the house is now worth at best $170,000, but more realistically around $150,000. This turns the loan into a real albatross. One strategy we are considering is to try to pay down principal with whatever extra monthly payment we can make (which ain’t much!), so that in 15 years, the amount to refinance might at least be no more than the house is actually worth, possibly allowing us to sell the house at that time.

In 15 years, with no extra payment toward principal, the loan balance will be $138,338. Monthly principal and interest payments are $1044; PITI comes to something over $1200.

Note that the projected loan balance is less than the most pessimistic present-day valuation. If the market finally has bottomed out and housing increases in value at 3% a year (a figure that is now being bandied about), in 15 years the house will be worth $233,695. That is less than we paid for it, but at least if we sold the house at that time we would walk away with a little cash in our pockets.

With me out of work, about the most we can afford to pay extra toward loan principal is about $100 a month.

Using Excel’s full value (=FV…) formula, I calculated the the return on a $100/month investment in a mutual fund earning 8% per annum. (Over at Vanguard, a number of stock funds and even a few bond funds are returning at this rate; one of them is Windsor II, in which I happen to already have a little cash.) I then used Quicken to run an amortization schedule, and compared the amount a $100/month investment would be worth in 15 years with the amount an extra $100/month principal payment would reduce the loan balance.

Assuming that our mutual fund investment averaged an 8 percent return, if we sent Vanguard $100 a month, in 15 years we would accrue $34,604 (full value =(.08/12,15*12,-100). If we paid an extra $100 a month toward the loan principal, in 15 years we would have paid the balance down by an extra $18,000 ($100 x 180 pay periods). According to Quicken, we would still owe $113,116.

With no extra payments, remember, we would still owe $138,338.

$138,338 – 113,116 = $25,220

Compare that with the $34,604 we would have earned in the mutual fund. Clearly, we would be ahead—by over $9,000!—by investing the money in a mutual fund with low overhead, such as Vanguard and Fidelity offer.

Well, now. Suppose you were not out of work, and so had plenty of cash to throw at the principal. Let’s suppose you really have plenty of cash and you decide to pay the equivalent of an entire P&I payment toward principal. Then what?

If you put $1,044 into a mutual fund every month, in 15 years you would have $361,264. If you paid $1044/month toward principal (in addition to your regular payment) on a $211,000 loan, you would pay off the loan in 10 years.

But by putting the cash into a mutual fund returning 8 percent, in 10 years you’d earn $190,995. Since in 10 years, with no extra payments, your loan balance would have dropped to $167,901, you’d still come out ahead:

$190,995 – $167,901 = $23,094

In other words, if you put the amount of an extra loan payment in an 8% investment, in ten years you would have enough to pay off the mortgage and still leave $23,000 in your pocket. If you used the same amount to pay toward the loan once a month, you would pay off the debt but would have no cash left over.

The conclusion is obvious: If your goal is to pay off your mortgage, you’re better off investing a regular payment in a decent mutual fund than paying the same amount toward principal.

This assumes your mortgage interest rate is lower than the rate of return from an equity fund. Note also that my figures do not take into consideration the small tax advantage gained by paying mortgage interest; this factor also would tend to improve the picture if you invested in the market.

Risky? Sure. But we now know that investing in real estate is wildly risky, too: more so, it develops, than the stock  market. My stock investments are rapidly regaining their pre-crash value, but there’s no credible sign of any recovery in the real estate market here. Even if the value of the house starts to increase at 3% p.a. today, in 15 years it won’t be worth anything like what we paid for it. If property values remain flat for any length of time (as it appears they will), we will lose not only our shirt but our pants, socks, and underwear.

I used to think my father was crazy because he refused to buy a  house until after he had saved enough to pay for it in cash. All the time I was growing up, we lived either in company housing or in rentals. His reasoning indeed was crazy—he bought into The Protocols of Zion, an irrational tract that led him to believe all mortgage lenders were part of a hallucinatory international Jewish conspiracy. However, the effect was that when he retired at the age of 53, he had enough cash to buy a house and a car and to support himself and my mother in a middle-class lifestyle without having to work.

Crazy like a fox, that old boy was.

A rabid fox, but still…

Budgeting and strategies for saving

Some time ago, a financial advisor who was helping me figure out what to do with a small inheritance remarked that I have a special talent for accruing savings by bits and pieces. Well, that does appear to be the case. As we noted the other day, by the end of this year my emergency fund will exceed $24,000—above and beyond the $21,000 squirreled away last year to pay off the Renovation Loan for the downtown house. 

So…how d’you do that?

Truth to tell, I don’t know how others would do it. But here are the basics that work for me:

1. Get out of debt and stay out of debt.

At the outset of my financial journey, I paid off a five-year car loan in 18 months by adding principal prepayments to each regular monthly payment. This freed up the $300/month payments to put into savings. Within a few years, I also paid off the $80,000 mortgage on my house, partly by renting space in my home and using the income to deal with the mortgage.

Debt consumes an enormous amount of your income. Freeing yourself of debt payments effectively “increases” your income even if you never get a raise—you end up with more money to spend or save.

2. Build savings into your budget.

“Pay yourself first” is the operative principle here. This is another way of saying “spend less than you earn.” As I was paying off car and real estate loans, I also set aside a small amount for savings each month. Bare minimum has always been $200 a month. As debts dissolve, some or all of the amount you’ve freed up by paying down debt can be added to the monthly savings.

When you create a budget, an effective way to create savings is to find a place to put every dollar of income. In other words, rather than estimating what you spend on each category (such as food, housing, utilities, transportation) and stopping when those categories are accounted for, build a set categories that will account for your entire net income. One of the categories should be “monthly savings.” This approach is sometimes called “zero-based budgeting.” 

My own approach to budgeting was to carefully track expenditures for a month or two, using Quicken or Excel. This provides a picture of where and how much you’re spending. Expense categories become evident after a month or so of observation. This exercise not only allows you to see where your money is going, it gives you some clues to where you might rein in unruly spending habits (for example, have you run amok at restaurants? did you really need all those clothes?). 

Once I understood my spending patterns, I established reasonable amounts for each category, including a category for savings. Any difference between income and expenditure was added to the “savings” category. Raises in pay resulted in raises in savings; although I might not devote the entire raise to increasing saving (you do have to get a life sometime, after all), I did pay myself better savings on the rare occasions the university gave me an increase.

3. Build side income streams.

Find ways to earn above and beyond the income from your day job. A master’s degree in anything will get you an adjunct teaching job at a community college. Night courses are a lot of fun to teach, because they’re full of adults who are there because they want to be there. Such gigs are not well paid, but every buck counts. I put all my net pay from teaching directly into savings.

You’re not forced to stop with just one side job. If you have a marketable hobby, if you enjoy collecting junk and selling it in yard sales, if you can trade a skill or a product for someone else’s skill, products, or dollars, you can create income that also can build your savings account. In addition to adjunct teaching, I also indulge in freelance editing. Every penny that comes in from that endeavor goes…yep! Right into savings.

Besides helping to build savings, secondary income streams have an enormous potential benefit: you still have them if you’re laid off your day job. Having the experience and contacts in teaching and editing will allow me to ramp up both those enterprises in my coming enforced retirement, and, as we have seen, will support me in the manner to which I intend to remain accustomed even if I never get another full-time job.

4. Take full advantage of your employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) plan.

If your employer  matches contributions to a retirement plan, for heaven’s sake, go for it! Every dollar your employer puts in means twice as much long-term savings for you. 

Allocate these investments intelligently, putting 50 or 60 percent in stocks and 40 or 50 percent in bonds and the money market. You have to assume some risk to make money in your investments; keeping it all in so-called “safe” instruments means your total savings will not keep up with inflation. Though the market does drop every now and again (sometimes with operatic drama!), over time losses and gains level out and and your investments build principal. Put your money in low-load funds to the extent possible (if your employer allows you to invest with Vanguard or Fidelity, these are good choices), because management fees eat into profits at an amazing rate.

Outside of an employment-related plan, go for Roth IRAs. Although these are after-tax instruments, they have the advantage that withdrawals after you reach age 59 1/2 are tax-free, which is huge. Also, they allow you to pass money to your heirs without the nasty tax gouges inherent to 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs. Here, too, set up your IRA with a low-load provider such as Vanguard or Fidelity.

5. Cultivate a frugal lifestyle.

Try to stay sane about this. You don’t really have to live like Our Hero, Scrooge McDuck. But on the other hand, neither do you have to live like an investment banker riding high. Get over the temptation to buy every new gadget just because it’s out there; to accrue stuff because all your friends, relatives and neighbors accrue stuff; to own bigger things and more things than you really need. Learn to distinguish between want and need, and then train yourself to appreciate the nonmaterial riches of life.

Frugality and simple living are the keys to living within your means. Spending less than you earn makes it possible to build savings and, eventually, to achieve financial freedom.

Résumés on the wind!

No grass grows under this old lady’s feet, that’s for sure. Just sent out a résumé for a sweet part-time job that would be a great hoot, and e-mailed my book-length curriculum vitae to the English department chair at a nearby community college.

Hey! We’ve only got nine months here to find a new job! Better get to work.

Truth to tell, I believe I could do either of these p/t jobs on the side, while wrapping up the deconstruction of our office. We know I’m capable of teaching the equivalent of four bloated sections of freshman comp for juniors and seniors while supervising an editorial crew; after that, two sections of real freshman comp whose size is limited to normal NCTE guidelines should be a piece of cake.

Far more appealing, though, is the prospect of serving as p/t gofer and sidekick for an editor (and friendly acquaintance) at my favorite local press. This is the outfit that pays me to read detective novels. Mirabilis! Some of the novels I’ve had the privilege to read have been pretty entertaining. If you enjoy detective fiction and thrillers, you should take a look at their booklist. I know I can do this job to a T, and it sure would be easier than teaching freshman comp. Not only that, but once I walk out the door, it probably would provide the income I’ll need to keep from starving.

Yesh. I scared the bejabbers out of myself, along about three in the morning (as you can imagine, I enjoyed about 2 1/2 hours of sleep last night, between 4:30 and 7:00 a.m.), by loading Excel and massaging some figures. Didn’t take long before I was asking myself the Great Dark-of-Night Ontological Question:
What on earth was I thinking when I imagined I could support myself on Social Security and investment proceeds?

Wait! I remember: at the time, we all actually had some investments.

I was horrified to find that what with the 12-fold increase in healthcare premiums that Medicare will represent plus the need to take my share of the Investment House mortgage out of cash flow, my expenses will exceed my present net income, in the highest-paying full-time job I’ve ever held!

To get by, I’ll need to earn an extra $19,000 to $21,000 a year, above and beyond investment returns and Social Security. This will be a trick, since you’re allowed to earn a grandiose $14,000 before Social Security starts docking your benefits.

Not having the mortgage payments wouldn’t help a lot: even without those, Social Security plus proceeds from my total savings (including the money set aside to pay off the Renovation Loan and the savings fund to buy the next car) will not cover my expenses, post-layoff. Check it out:

Projected Expenses


Projected Net Income from Social Security and Investments


And oops, indeed: take a close look at what it’s going to cost me to live in blissful bumhood. And consider that my net income today is $39,000. I live like an ascetic: don’t travel, don’t own a cell phone, don’t subscribe to cable, satellite, or any other pay-per-view TV, don’t play computer games, rarely eat out, never buy more than the basic clothes and shoes, drive a 10-year-old car, don’t run a tab on the credit card, don’t even go to a freaking picture show! And I use up all but about about $2,000 of that each year. We’re looking at a $4,560 increase in my expenses once I’m on Medicare! Meanwhile, my income drops into the poverty range.

Clearly, I’ll have to work: either get a job or cultivate several income streams. The candidates are part-time teaching, growing The Copyeditor’s Desk, and monetizing Funny about Money.

Community colleges around here pay part-timers about $2,000 a course. The universities now pay about $3,000. Typical income from a freelance business is about $10,000 a year; I would be surprised, rusticated as we are in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, if Tina and I could generate much more than that, apiece. And what would FaM earn? It’s anybody’s guess. So guessy as to be negligible.

Hiring out to teach two courses from the community college district and two from the Great Desert University each year and ramping up our freelance business so that it pays a consistent 10 grand a year will produce something that looks like this:

projectedincomestreamsTwenty thousand extra dollars would do the trick, in theory. But that exceeds the Social Security earnings limitation by $6,000. Have the temerity to earn more than $14,000 a year, and you get your Social Security benefits axed. So, I would have to earn significantly more than 20 grand to end up with enough income to cover the bloated expenses of retirement.

If I’d had the prescience to sell my investments in the spring of 2008, today I would have plenty of money to live on, between SS and investment income. Too bad we didn’t all have crystal balls, eh?

Well, I felt a lot better, anyway, having sent out a couple of job feelers. Even if they come to naught, just doing something other than hunkering in the headlight while waiting to be run down feels like a positive move.

Is it time to punt?

This month’s statement from Fidelity shows another $10,000 loss in my big IRA, despite my financial advisors’ having moved as much as possible into conservative investments, gold, and cash.

At the age of 63—damn! soon to be 64!—I’m watching my retirement investments melt away. That IRA has dropped in value from a high of $326,000 to $193,000. Total savings have dropped from over $600,000 to less than $420,000. Meanwhile, we owe $23,000 more than the Investment House is presently worth, and I took out a second on my own house to renovate said investment.

I’m wondering if it’s time to do something completely, utterly, totally contrarian. Hang onto your hats, folks, because this is one scary idea:

Maybe I should cash out that big IRA before it’s all gone. I have enough set aside in savings to pay off the small second mortgage on my house; if instead I combined that with the amount remaining in the IRA, I could use the money to pay off the loan on the Investment House. My son could then continue to pay me the amount he’s been paying toward the mortgage as a variety of “rent.”

I would repay him his share of our combined investment in the house so far. This would provide him enough to go back to school, which he would like to do.

If he decides to go to the University of Arizona, which has a better graduateprogram inpublic administration than the Great Desert University’s, I could either rent his house, providing a nice bit of cash flow, or I could rent mine for even more, move into his, use the rental on my house to cherry out the little house downtown, and collect a ton of money.

Because I no longer have enough in savings to support me in old age, I’m going to have to work until I drop. When the deans physically throw me out of the place (assuming I haven’t died before then), I would have the rental income from one house, Social Security, and income from taking out a reverse mortgage on whichever house I’m living in.

Hm. I wonder what that would look like?

Let’s assume a miracle happens and the Obamaites succeed in turning the economy around. Let’s assume that starts to happen in, say, three months, during which I continue to lose at the rate of 10 grand a month.

Several options present themselves:
1. Stay the course. Change nothing in the investment strategy
2. Pay off the house; have my son pay the amount he’s been paying, only to me.
3. Pay off the house; my son goes to school elsewhere and I rent his house.
4. Pay off the house; my son leaves for graduate school; I move into his place and rent my house.

I ran some figures in Excel. My math is not very good, so these prognostications may be out in left field. But if I’m right, it looks like I would be better off to pay the mortgage and have M’hijito pay me a monthly “rental” in the amount that he’s now paying the mortgage company. I’d still have enough to refund him his investment in the house, which would pay a big chunk of his graduate school tuition, or at least revive his Roth IRA.

I posited three mortgage-payoff scenarios and estimated my net income if I retired at age 66 (which ain’t gunna happen) or at age 70 (the earliest I can imagine being able to afford retirement). I assumed equity investments would continue to drop 10% a month for the next three months and then begin to rise at about 3% a year from now forward. In scenario 1, M’hijito stays in the house and pays me rent of $600 a month. In scenario 2, he goes to graduate school in Tucson and I rent his house for $950/month. In scenario 3, he goes to Tucson, I move into his house, and I rent my house for $1,000/month.

I listed all the bottom lines in Excel and then sorted to show the numbers ranging from least income to most income.

Compared with staying the course (leaving my investments where they are and continuing to pay the mortgage), all three pay-off-the-mortgage scenarios seem to look better, unlessM’hijito stays in the house and I’m forced to retire or am laid off at age 66.


The big unknown is whether I will keep my job. If I’m canned before I reach age 70, we lose a very big bet. But if I can hang on until age 70 and I’m not purely raped by the taxman, then I end up with a net income fairly close to my present net.

On the other hand, if I’m canned, we’re screwed anyway.

My son would get back the money he put into the down payment. He could continue to live in the house as long as he pleased, but he would no longer be chained to the thing: he would be free to go to school or take a better job elsewhere.If I moved to his house, when I really get desperate for money (which will inevitably happen as my health starts to fail and medical care costs soar), I could take out a reverse mortgage on the place. M’hijito would then lose that house after I die, unless he wanted to pay off the reverse mortgage, but he would inherit my paid-off house, which by then would be making a nice rental income for him, or (with some fix-up) would be a good place for him to live.

Whaddaya think? Crazy? Or not crazy?

Financial Advisor to Investor: Don’t panic!

Below, an exchange that started with an update from my financial advisor.

Beloved youngish partner of Financial Dudes, LLC, to Funny about Money:

To enhance our ability to remain patient with respect to our long-term investment strategy, we raised the cash level in your portfolio again, by trimming allocations to specific securities.

In addition, we initiated the process to upgrade the quality of our client’s money market holdings to a U.S. Treasury based money market to avoid the turmoil swirling around some money market funds. If you were not in a U.S. Treasury money fund, you will see some activity in your affected accounts in the next day or so.

There certainly has been a tremendous amount of news to digest lately, and we are navigating these markets with your long-term goals in mind. We have seen, and likely will continue to see, short-term volatility in the value of many investments that we hold.

If you have any questions or concerns, simply give us a call.

Funny to BYPoFD:

Thanks, John–

I have about ten or twelve grand in Vanguard’s Prime Money Market fund. VG is claiming it’s not invested in Lehman or related unhappy sites, & so I’m guessing it’s OK to leave the money there… Would you advise moving that money to a different fund? Or into a credit union money market, which just now earns a grand 1.88 percent?

best, –vh

BYPoFDto Funny:

We just moved it to be on the safe side and don’t think there will be any issues with the money market. We will move it back at some point. I wouldn’t really fret the Vanguard money market as they are normally on the conservative side and I don’t think there will be any issues.

Funny toBYPoFD:

Good. I’d pretty much reached the same conclusion.

Doesn’t appear to be much safety anywhere in the current storm, eh?

BYPoFD to Funny:

Not really. Even putting it under your mattress you run the risk of someone stealing it. Eventually we will work through all the problem companies and the ones that survive will be the big winners like in the early 90’s. This seems to be happening with BofA.

The long and the short of it:

Don’t dive out of your money market fund. Especially if it’s with Vanguard. Stay the course.

Scary times

Well, we all had quite the adventure yesterday. I woke up an hour ago—12:30 in the morning local time—wondering if I should move all my investments into the money market. Nothing like the dead of night to ramp up the panic factor.

In fact, though, I see that Vanguard lost all of $738.13 against many tens of thousands of dollars, and so I’m feeling a little saner.

Don’t have up-to-the-minute data on how the big IRA (a different fund) that Stern and Reimer manage is doing, but in past slumps Stern has worked the occasional small miracle. Checking the current holdings, I see he dumped Morgan Stanley and AIG a while back…and interestingly, we own Bank of America. How does that man know? He’s bought my son’s employer, so I guess he doesn’t expect that outfit to crash in flames soon. A fair amount of oil: Occidental, Exxon, and Conoco Phillips. And…hmmm…he’s moved a ton of money into cash reserves. Yipe!

At any rate, I guess I won’t be going broke soon. Later, maybe, but not today.