Unlike people of her father’s generation, Lauren Beale, 60, said she never expected to own a house outright at retirement.
Beale, a former journalist who retired in 2015, pays $2,063 a month for a mortgage for her home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., in Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband. The couple bought the house for $800,000 in 2002.
They now owe $268,000 on the mortgage. And Beale said she had no plans to double up on her payment and pay it off faster. “What if you need that money for some kind of emergency down the road?” she asked. “We are comfortable with some mortgage payment. It doesn’t make sense to draw from the nest egg, the retirement accounts, to pay it down soon.”
Beale, now a freelancer and novelist, said she would rather keep her savings as a safety net: “I think boomers are feeling less secure about our medical futures.”
Retired with a mortgage
The Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, recently released an analysis concluding that baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1965 — were 10 percentage points less likely to own their homes outright than pre-boomer people who were the same age in 2000.
The report says the rise in housing debt among older homeowners is increasingly worrisome. There are concerns that having mortgage obligations could weaken seniors’ financial security in retirement and put them at greater risk for foreclosure, among other potential problems.
Still, Beale is not concerned. Her family’s monthly mortgage bill is just roughly 20 percent of the total household income. They have no other debts, nor do they have major monetary needs. Her financial goal at this stage is to have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, pay all the bills and be able to travel.
To be sure, not every boomer is as financially confident as Beale. Nationwide, boomers carried an average housing debt of about $68,400 in 2016, according to Federal Reserve data analyzed by MagnifyMoney. National statistics also revealed that a hefty 2.5 million people ages 55 and older became renters between 2009 and 2015, up 28 percent from 2009, the biggest jump among all age groups. RENTCafe.com, a nationwide apartment search website, said the notable change in renter profile could be that empty-nesters changed lifestyles, got hit hard by the housing slump or can’t afford to own homes.
How to pay off your mortgage faster
For those who do care about paying mortgages off before retirement, here are some ways to handle those debts faster and stay motivated to reach your goals:
Paying off debt? It’s like earning more money
Leon LaBrecque, a Michigan-based certified financial planner, said roughly half of his clients — mostly middle-class Americans — are able to pay off mortgages approaching retirement. A boomer himself, he is all for paying off mortgages as soon as possible to achieve better cash flow.
“Debts are an anti-asset,” said LaBrecque. “Removing an anti-asset is the same as having an asset. So If I got a 4 percent mortgage, I pay it off, I made 4 percent.”
He added: “It’s very hard to make 4 percent now. The fixed-income market is so constrained that there are not a lot of good alternatives to debt reduction.”
Pay off other debts. High-interest debt, in particular.
Before paying down a mortgage or paying it off, get rid of other high-interest-rate debts first. Think student loans and credit card balances.
LaBrecque offered this example: Say you have a 4 percent rate on your mortgage and an auto loan with a $350 payment and a 5 percent interest rate — you should pay the car note off first. Then you can put an extra $350 toward your mortgage each month.
Find money from other sources
If you have cash idling somewhere, with no particular purpose, pay off your mortgage. Remember: If you go and pay off a loan, there is an immediate return for what you’ve repaid.
“You got $125,000 sitting in the bank, making nothing, and you owe $80,000 on the mortgage; pay the mortgage off,” LaBrecque has been telling his elderly clients lately.
Also, if you have money in the market, consider getting rid of a sub-performing investment and put the resources into the mortgage, he said.
Improve the cash flow
Be conscious of how you spend your money. If paying off housing debts is your primary goal, prioritize it and allocate your money accordingly.
“We always talk about having a good cash-flow management system for our younger population, but we don’t get a lot of that on the older population,” said Juan Guevara, a Colorado-based certified financial planner. “We always think that, ‘Well, those guys have figured it out.’ Well, maybe not.”
Take a look at your cash flow holistically. When you track your spending, you can watch for opportunities to put more money toward your mortgage. For example, if you were helping your children pay student loans, see if they can take on the responsibility and redirect that budget toward your housing debt. As you approach retirement, consider using any bonuses or pay raises you receive to pay down debt.
Break down big goals. Baby steps.
It’s easier to make big goals and separate them into little pieces, experts say. Guevara advises that boomers divide their monthly house payment by 12 and add that amount to their payment each month.
If your monthly payment is $1,500, for instance, “now you’re looking at a goal of having to add another $125 to each payment every month, instead of having to come up with $1,500 at the end of the year,” Guevara said.
Refinance your mortgage
Once you’ve managed a good cash flow, it’s likely that you are able to apply extra funds to your mortgage every month. This is when you may want to consider refinancing the mortgage to get a lower rate or a shorter term.
LaBrecque said he suggests that clients take out 30-year mortgages but pay them off sooner.
“You can always turn a 30-year mortgage into a 15 but you can’t turn a 15-year mortgage into a 30,” he said. “I’m a big fan of having the obligation as low as possible on a monthly but also have the flexibility to pay it off.”
Shorter home loans generally have lower interest rates, so you’ll not only pay off your mortgage faster, you’ll also pay less in interest.
Beale has refinanced her mortgage twice to lower the monthly payment. Her current 20-year mortgage now carries an interest rate of about of 3.88 percent, significantly lower than the original 30-year loan. (It came with a rate above 5 percent.)
You can learn more about this tactic in our guide to refinancing your mortgage.
Educate your children
Guevara said he has seen an increasing number of parents spending beyond their means for their children: They’re taking on student loans, supporting sons and daughters after they finish school or offering other assistance. Those expenses chew up a significant amount of the money they could be putting toward the mortgage.
“It’s not my place to tell them to stop,” he said. “It’s my place to show them, ‘Look, this is what happens if you don’t stop or if you continue on the path that you are on now.’”
If you want to own your house outright earlier, Guevara said it’s worth starting to teach your children about the value of money and helping them become more financially responsible in an early stage.
“Money is a taboo in our society, and it shouldn’t be,” Guevara said. “It should be something that we talk about at the dinner table.”
Look forward to financial freedom
Beale and her husband will be debt-free in 13 more years if they stay in the same house and continue making payments as they’ve been doing. But she doesn’t seem to look forward to that day.
“I think as we age, things that might seem like a happy occasion might be more of a sense of finality,” she said.
But she also finds a silver lining — the financial freedom that comes when debt is paid off.
“Who knows at that point; what if I have grandkids?” she said. “Maybe I’ll say: ‘Hey, my bills are paid. Maybe I’ll start taking that $2,000 and putting it into a college fund or something.’”