Should you own your home free and clear before you retire?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be “absolutely, if at all possible.” Retiring with less debt … isn’t that a good thing? Why not make a few extra mortgage payments to get the job done?

In reality, things are not so cut and dry. There is a real opportunity cost to consider. If you decide to put more money toward your mortgage, what could that money potentially do for you if you were to direct it elsewhere?

In a nutshell, the question is: should you pay down low-interest debt, or should you invest the money into a tax-advantaged account that could potentially bring you a strong return?

Relatively speaking, home loans are cheap debt

Compare the interest rate on your mortgage to the one on your credit card. Should you focus your attention on debt with 6% interest or debt with 15% interest?

You can usually deduct mortgage interest, so if your home loan carries a 6% interest rate, your after-tax borrowing rate could end up being 5% or lower.

If history is any barometer, your home’s value may increase over time, and inflation will effectively reduce your mortgage’s actual total over time.

Making mortgage prepayments may not be the right choice

It’s important to look at the math and examine the tradeoff between prepaying your mortgage and tax-deferred retirement savings.

You save taxes on each dollar you direct into IRAs, 401(k)s, and other tax-deferred investment vehicles. Those invested dollars have the chance for tax-free growth. Like many people, you may enter a lower tax bracket in retirement, so your taxable income and federal tax rate could be lower when you withdraw the money out of that account.

Another potential benefit of directing more funds toward your 401(k): If the company you work for provides an employer match, then you may be able to collect more of what is often dubbed “free money.”

Let’s turn from tax-deferred retirement investing altogether and consider insurance and college planning. Many families are underinsured, and the money for extra mortgage payments could optionally be directed toward long-term care insurance or disability coverage. If you’ve only recently started to build a college fund, putting the assets into that fund may be preferable.

Let’s also remember that money you keep outside the mortgage is money that is generally easier to access.

What if you owe more than your house is worth?

Prepaying an underwater mortgage may seem like folly to you – or maybe you love the house and are in it for the long run. Even so, you could reallocate money that could be used for the home loan toward an emergency fund, or insurance, or some account with the potential for tax-deferred growth – when all the factors are weighed, it might look like the better move.

Think it over

It comes down to what you believe. If you are bearish, then you may lean toward paying off your mortgage before you retire. There is no doubt about it - when you pay off the debt you owe, you effectively get an instant return on your money for every dollar. If you are tantalizingly close to paying off your house, then you may want to go ahead and do it because you love being free and clear.

On the other hand, model scenarios may tell you another story. After you run the numbers, you may want to direct the money to other financial priorities and opportunities, especially if you tend to be bullish and think the market will perform along the lines of its long-term historical averages.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If you’re unsure which direction may be most beneficial to you, speak with a qualified Financial Professional.