I have written in depth about my mortgage and my aggressive payoff plans. I really hope that you don’t follow in my example and treat your mortgage like a pants on fire debt emergency like I did because that was a huge mistake. Keep in mind that while aggressively paying down my mortgage, I also maxed out my pre-tax 401(k), my HSA when it was available, and my Roth IRA. I also maintained a healthy six month emergency fund and another six months across liquid stock index funds and bonds.
I regret aggressively paid down a 2.5% mortgage. Over the course of 2.5 years, I made $126,000 in extra payments. At my current expense level including my required mortgage payment, that is 2.6 years of expenses. Instead of hiding $126,000 in my Vanguard taxable investment account in the form of stock index funds or in a cash savings account, I hid it in my mortgage, from which the only ways I can extract equity are by applying for a HELOC currently priced at ~4.25% in advance of when I need the funds or by selling half of the condo to my husband over time.
Doesn’t this chart look motivating? I made such huge strides on eliminating that mortgage debt pretty quickly: within the first 2.5 years, I paid off exactly 50% of the original mortgage balance.
Why did I do this?
I was scared of my mortgage.
My original mortgage balance was 3x my gross base salary when I bought the condo. I had never had debt before (no student loans or credit card debt) and having 3x my base salary in debt was HUGE.
15 year fixed mortgage rates and 5/1 ARM rates were the same when I bought my condo. A decent portion of my income came in the form of deferred compensation and I didn’t want to lock myself into the payments of a 15 year fixed rate mortgage, so I thought that a 5/1 ARM was the perfect compromise – the rate of a 15 year fixed rate mortgage with a 30 year amortization. I didn’t trust in my then-income level enough to lock in the 15 year fixed rate payments. The difference between the two payments? $1,900/month versus $1,20o0/month when the lower payment caused me to see zero increase in my annual expenses over renting and I was stashing $2,000/month into savings on top of maxing out my pre-tax 401(k) and Roth IRA.
I didn’t understand compound interest.
My parents preached that debt is bad, anyone who carries debt is financially irresponsible, and no one should hold their mortgage or student loans or any other debt any longer than minimally necessary. I’m not really certain of their investing strategy because they think the stock market is too risky and you should invest entirely in bonds, real estate, cash. That’s a debate for another time. I started saving for retirement while I was in college (back in 2007), but all of that was put into certificates, not into the stock market. No one explained compound interest to me until I found the financial blogosphere back in 2011 and despite the number of advanced math classes I took in high school and college, I never figured it out either. You don’t have to save nearly as much for retirement if you frontload it in your twenties and thirties and invest in stocks. The Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund, for example, has an average annual return of 10.83% since its inception in late August 1976. That’s just over 40 years ago. That is pretty much unheard of in cash returns! At least in my lifetime that I can remember.
I was scared of the stock market.
Yes, I had no comprehension of compound interest, yet somehow I was perfectly happy locking away money in retirement accounts for many decades and investing in stocks there, while being scared of investing in the stock market outside of my retirement accounts. I would rather get a guaranteed 2.5% return than incur the increased risk of the stock market that could possibly get me a 10.83% return. (For the record, Vanguard currently tells me that I have seen a 9.0% return over the last 6.5 years that I’ve had accounts with them or 9.8% over the last 5 years, which is when I started hunting for a condo.) I was so scared of losing money, of seeing my account balances go down, that I took the guaranteed 2.5% return instead.
Why was this a huge mistake?
I’m sitting on a desire to take a sabbatical from my highly paid tech job and I’ve spent much of 2016 setting aside additional liquid funds in order to finance that. Had I not paid down the mortgage so aggressively, I would have already had that fund. Assuming I had invested the exact same amounts I paid extra on the mortgage into Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund on the exact same days that I made extra mortgage payments, I would have had $148,924.73 in the index fund on 10/1/2016 and I would have been ahead. Now, the stock market has done reasonably well over the past 4.5 years, so in the following chart I also compare aggressively paying down the mortgage to aggressively saving in a 1% interest earning savings account:
Notice how the green line and the red line are pretty much on top of each other? Cash currently would be worse than aggressively paying the mortgage by a mere 2%. Investing has been at best 19% better than aggressively paying the mortgage and at worst, $215 better, thanks to a rising stock market over the last several years. You look at this second chart and wonder why I paid the mortgage so aggressively when I could have accomplished the same net mortgage balance within $2,000 by just keeping the extra funds in cash.
What does this math show?
If I could have been convinced to not blow all of the money I threw at the mortgage over the last 4.5 years, I would have been better off leaving it in a 1% savings account than throwing it at the mortgage quite so aggressively. That would have left me with significantly more liquidity.
In late 2011, I wrote a post entitled “What to do with extra monthly and bonus cash flow?” in which I explained several ideas I was tossing around:
- Split the money up three ways into investments, pre-paying the mortgage, and saving for a 20% down payment on a house
- Split the money up 50/50 into investments and pre-paying the mortgage
- Split the money up 50/50 into pre-paying the mortgage and saving for a 20% down payment on a house
- Invest all of the money
- Use all of the money to pre-pay the mortgage and pay it off really quickly
My conclusion? “Right now, I prefer the first option since it still allows the extra funds to be diverted back to mortgage pre-payments or investments at any point. The fifth option isn’t very flexible and the fourth option is the riskiest.” Yet, that is not at all what I did. I went with the fifth option.
But then, once I bought a place, I picked a 5/1 ARM, set out to pay it off before the rate reset, which was absolutely a side effect of the fear of the rate resetting, and got addicted to the high of paying down the mortgage. It was so much higher than any high I have ever experienced from saving. I was really convinced that the mortgage would be paid off before the rate reset, before life happened in the form of my now-husband moving in, a job change that unexpectedly reduced my income, starting grad school, and getting married. I’ll talk later about how we plan to handle the mortgage going forward in our marriage.
Back in July 2012, I thought “I’m not the sort of person who would *not* take out a loan to invest. I’m the sort of person who would have more job security if I lowered my yearly fixed expenses by $14,469.48 than by having a larger amount of money in the bank.” I no longer believe that to be true and I can’t take back the large payments I made on the mortgage without doing a cash-out refinance or opening up and drawing down a HELOC. I was addicted to the fact that early on in the mortgage, I could pay $X in an extra payment, which was about Y normal monthly payments and shave off 2*Y regular monthly payments off the end. I got addicted to paying down my mortgage.
It’s all incredibly irrational. Personal finance is all so personal. But that chart doesn’t lie – I would have been better off keeping my mortgage payoff fund in cash.
Aggressively paying down my mortgage being my biggest financial mistake shows how much financial privilege I have. If you hate debt as much as I do, I am absolutely on board with paying extra on your mortgage, but not this all or nothing approach for several years like I did. That said, buying this condo is quite probably the best financial decision that I have ever made – by a stroke of luck, it has appreciated an average of 11% annually since I purchased the property. I didn’t even need to pay the mortgage any extra to get the benefit of that appreciation.
Cash could have been turned into extra mortgage payments later.