Fidelity IRA Match: Switch and They’ll Match Your Contributions Up to 10%

Fidelity has released an infographic [pdf] about the power of saving 1% more of your income:

fido1more

To coincide with this, Fidelity started a related promotion to entice folks to move over their IRA assets to them. The Fidelity IRA Match is designed to mimic the 401(k) contribution matching that many employers offer, where Fidelity will match between 1% and 10% of your future contribution for 3 years if you roll over $10,000+ to them. Valid for both new and existing Fidelity customers, but only for IRAs and not other account types. Here’s the breakdown:

Qualifying transfer* Match rate Estimated max benefit* (age 50+)
$10,000 1% $165 ($195)
$50,000 1.5% $247.50 ($292.50)
$100,000 2.5% $412.50 ($487.50)
$250,000 5% $825 ($975)
$500,000 10% $1,650 ($1,950)

 

* Qualifying transfers must be rollovers or transfers from non-Fidelity IRAs (Traditional or Roth). Rollovers from workplace savings plans are not eligible for this offer. Estimated max benefit is based on $5,500 annual contribution for three years ($6,500 for age 50+). Max benefit is set at $1,950.

It’s an interesting proposal. Keep in mind that many IRA custodians will ding you with an outgoing transfer fee if you move your money out. Also, Fidelity has other deposit promotions going on that offer a little less than the max payout here, but they are more straightforward bonuses.

To participate, you must register at www.fidelity.com/IRAmatch. If you do participate, I would like to point out the availability of their Fidelity Spartan Index funds, their Fidelity Freedom Index 20XX target-date funds which you can now purchase in an IRA, and their commission-free iShares ETFs. Fido has some good, low-cost products on their menu, but you may have to look for them.

Selected fine print:

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Early Retirement Portfolio Income Update, Year-End 2014

When investing, should you focus on income or total return? I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income, but I also think it is easy for people to reach too far for yield and hurt their overall returns. But what is too far? That’s the hard part. Certainly there are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking for maximum income. If possible, I’d like to invest for total return and then live off the income.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar quote pages. Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (1/5/14) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.76% 0.42%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.68% 0.08%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 3.4% 0.81%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 3.17% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.60% 0.22%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLUX)
20% 1.68% 0.34%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 2.24% 0.45%
Totals 100% 2.41%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.41%, as opposed to 2.49% and 2.31% the previous two quarters. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $24,100 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. Now, 2.41% is significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often recommended for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is also lower than the 3% withdrawal that I prefer as a rough benchmark for early retirement. But in theory the total return will be much greater due to share appreciation.

As noted previously, a simple benchmark for this portfolio is Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) which is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.09%. Keep in mind that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.

So how am I doing? Using my 3% benchmark, the combination of ongoing savings and recent market gains have us at 91% of the way to matching our annual household spending target. Using the 2.41% number, I am only 73% of the way there. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. From that perspective, a 2% spending rate seems like a very conservative lower bound.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation Update, Year-End 2014

Here’s a final update on my investment portfolio holdings for 2014. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like physical property and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover all of our household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

aa_updated2015

I try to pick asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. In addition, I am not confident in them enough to know that I will hold them through an extended period of underperformance (i.e. don’t buy what you don’t understand).

Our current ratio is roughly 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-directed portfolio of low-cost funds and low turnover, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

aa_pie_2014final

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Notes and Benchmark Comparison

There was very little activity during the last quarter of 2014. I’ll need to do some rebalancing in the beginning of 2015. I did change my asset allocation tree above to reflect that my bond holdings have a weighted duration of close to 4 years now. It used to say “shorter-term” but really now it is more “intermediate-term”. I’ve been putting my new bond money into VWIUX, which holds intermediate-term high-quality municipal bonds. I haven’t sold any of my limited-term holdings. Overall, it’s a little longer in maturity and a little higher yield, but nothing drastic. I don’t really listen to future rate predictions; they’ve been wrong more than they’ve been right.

I’ve already noted the 2014 performance of each individual fund here along with my overall portfolio total return of roughly 6.5% for 2014.

A simple benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That would have returned about 7.1% for 2014. One reason for my portfolio’s relative underperformance to this benchmark is my inclusions of TIPS bonds which returned 3.5% whereas the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund (BND) returned 6% for the year. I’m still happy to hold TIPS. If I had more tax-advantaged space and/or a lower tax rate I’d hold BND instead of muni bonds but I’m still happy with my muni funds as well.

In a separate post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio along with how that compares to my expenses.

Back to Basics: Create Your Own Investing Priority List

scale_money

Happy New Year! You want to perform a check-up on your finances. Where should you be putting your money?

I’m searching through my archives and doing a series on classic financial topics called “Back to Basics” . The Vanguard blog recently talked about investing priorities, which compared closely with this 2006 blog post. There is no definitive list, but each person can create their own with common components. Here’s my current list:

  1. Invest in your 401(k) or similar plan up until any match. Company matches typically offer you 50 cents to a dollar for each dollar that you contribute yourself, up to a certain amount. Add in the tax deferral benefits, and it adds up to a great deal. Estimated annual return: 25% to 100%.
  2. Pay down your high-interest debt (credit cards, personal loans, subprime car loans). If you pay down a loan at 12% interest, that’s the same as earning a 12% return on your money and higher than the average historical stock market return. Estimated annual return: 10-20%.
  3. Create an emergency fund with at least 3 months of expenses. It can be difficult, but I’ve tried to describe the high potential value of an emergency fund. For example, a bank overdraft or late payment penalty can be much higher than 10% of the original bill. Estimated return: Varies.
  4. Fund your Traditional or Roth IRA up to the maximum allowed. You can invest in stocks or bonds at any brokerage firm, and the tax advantages let you keep more of your money. Estimated annual return: 8%. Even if you think you are ineligible due to income limits, you can contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then roll it over to a Roth (aka Backdoor Roth IRA).
  5. Continue funding your 401(k) or similar to the maximum allowed. There are both Traditional and Roth 401(k) options now, although your investment options may be limited as long as you are with that employer. Estimated annual return: 8%.
  6. Save towards a house down payment. This is another harder one to quantify. Buying a house is partially a lifestyle choice, but if you don’t move too often and pay off that mortgage, you’ll have lower expenses afterward. Estimated return: Qualify of life + imputed rent.
  7. Invest money in taxable accounts. Sure you’ll have to pay taxes, but if you invest efficiently then long-term capital gains rates aren’t too bad. Estimated annual return: 6%.
  8. Pay down any other lower-interest debt (2% car loans, educational loans, mortgage debt). There are some forms of lower-interest and/or tax-deductible debt that can be lower priority, but must still be addressed. Estimated annual return: 2-6%.
  9. Save for your children’s education. You should take care of your own retirement before paying off your children’s tuition. There are many ways to fund an education, but it’s harder to get your kids to fund your retirement. Estimated return: Depends.

I wasn’t sure where to put this, but you should also make sure you have adequate insurance (health, disability, and term life insurance if you have dependents). The goal of most optional insurance is to cover catastrophic events, so ideally you’ll pay a small amount and hope to never make a claim.

How to Win the Loser’s Game: Free Documentary

SensibleInvesting.tv recently released a free documentary about the fund management industry and the effect of their high fees on the returns of everyday citizens. “How to Win the Loser’s Game” includes interviews with Vanguard founder John Bogle, Nobel Prize-winning economists Eugene Fama and William Sharpe, author and wealth manager Larry Swedroe, amongst many others. While the publisher is UK-based, most of the concepts are widely applicable to all fund management. The film is broken down into 10 different parts, each about 8 minutes long.

If you are a visual learner and rather watch an educational video than read a book, this documentary is definitely for you. The brief episodes gradually cover the benefits of a low-cost, long-term, low-maintenance, diversified investment strategy. Here’s the trailer, which ends with links to all 10 episodes.

Scary Longevity Charts for Couples in Retirement

It’s time for some morbid Halloween thoughts! Via an AAII interview with William Sharpe, it appears that the Nobel Prize winner and Sharpe Ratio namesake is working on a software project called Retirement Income Scenarios (blog and software site). It’s not very sleek and I haven’t spent much time with it, but one of the features is a longevity chart:

One of the things that people can do using the illustrative software program available through my retirement income blog is to type in their age and sex and their partner’s age and sex and see the probabilities that both will be alive, that one will be alive or that the other will be alive year by year in the future, based on a set of actuarial tables. Most people don’t want to look at such a graph, but I think it’s important to do so. Most who do this react by saying “that’s a long time, a really long time.”

Sharpe wants people to realize they may live a long time and “scare” them into saving more, working longer, and/or being more careful with their portfolios. Here is the example chart given for retiring couple with male age 66 and female age 63. The green bars show the probability of both spouses being alive at a given year in the future. The blue bars show the probability of just the husband being alive, while the red the bars show the probability of just the wife being alive.

male66_720

As you can see, there’s a good chance (roughly 40%) that the woman will live another 30 years after retirement. That is a really long time.

So I started up the software and ran the number for something closer to our situation – both male and female currently 36 years old. Here’s the longevity chart produced:

both36_720

When I examine this chart, I have a different perspective. Being male, I notice that there is a roughly a 10% chance that I won’t make it to age 66. There is a 20% chance (1 in 5) that I won’t make it to 76. The idea of dying before I can actually enjoy retirement – that is scary to me. So yes people can “just” work longer, but also remember that your time on this Earth is limited and not guaranteed. There are many paths out there, but I don’t plan on working hard until 65 or 70 and then hoping I can relax for while before I croak.

Sequence of Returns Risk During Retirement Illustration

Businessweek has an article discussing the difficulties when trying to make a retirement nest egg last for the rest of your life. Most people just worry about the average returns of their investments. But another important concern during the withdrawal phase is sequence of returns risk.

Two retirees can start with the same initial portfolio balance and experience the same average return, but if one experiences highly negative returns in the first few years of withdrawals they can end up with very different outcomes. Instead of explaining this concept with a list of numbers, here is a graphical version from the BW article. Both Jane and John start with $1 million, experience 7% average returns, and take out $50,000 a year with a 3% increase each year for inflation.

sor_risk

Jane ends up 20 years later with $700,00 more than she started, and John is flat broke. Although the sequence of returns shown is a bit extreme, they are simply mirrored and it is still entirely possible.

Some people take this to mean that you shouldn’t retire when the market has been on a good bull run, but I think the point is that you simply don’t know what order your future returns will be. The bull run could keep on going and create a bubble, and then pop many years later. Or something like a declaration of war could crush the market even further even if things have already been bad for a while.

Briefly, a couple of options that can help alleviate this sequence of returns risk are a dynamic withdrawal strategy that continually adjusts to actual returns (no set number every year), and also annuitizing part of your portfolio using a single-premium immediate annuity. Finally, don’t forget the traditional advice of holding a sizable chunk of quality bonds in your portfolio.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income Update – October 2014

When investing, should you focus on income, or total return? I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income, but I also think it is easy for people to reach too far for yield and hurt their overall returns. But what is too far? That’s the hard part. Certainly there are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking for maximum income. If possible, I’d like to invest for total return and then live off the income.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar quote pages. Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (10/18/14) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.78% 0.43%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.81% 0.08%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 3.35% 0.80%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 2.97% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.51% 0.21%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLUX)
20% 1.70% 0.34%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 1.78% 0.36%
Totals 100% 2.31%

 

The total weighted yield was 2.31%, as opposed to 2.49% calculated last quarter. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $23,100 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. Now, 2.31% is significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often recommended for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is also lower than the 3% withdrawal that I prefer as a rough benchmark for early retirement. Hurray for zero interest rates!

So how am I doing? Using my 3% benchmark, the combination of ongoing savings and recent market gains have us at 90% of the way to matching our annual household spending target. Using the 2.31% number, I am only 69% of the way there. That’s a big difference, and something I’ll have to reconcile. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. From that perspective, a 2% spending rate seems extremely cautious.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation Update – October 2014

Here’s an update on my investment portfolio holdings for Q3 2014. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like physical property and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover all of our household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

aa_updated2013_bigger

I try to pick asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, regular income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. In addition, I am not confident in them enough to know that I will hold them through an extended period of underperformance (don’t buy what you don’t understand).

Our current ratio is about 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-directed portfolio of low-cost index funds and low turnover, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

1410_portfolio_aa

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Notable Changes

Last quarter, I had sold my PIMCO Total Return fund holdings. Well, that was lucky on my part with all the recent Bill Gross drama. I decided to sell my stable value fund holdings too as I needed rebalance into more TIPS bonds and I was now able to buy TIPS inside my employee retirement plan using the Schwab PCRA brokerage window. All of our tax-deferred space is now taken up with TIPS and REITs, so the rest of my bonds are tax-exempt munis and savings bonds.

Otherwise, not much new, I rebalanced with new money and reinvested dividends. By this, I mean I don’t automatically reinvest dividends into the same mutual fund or ETF that generated them. Instead, they accumulate for bit and then I reinvest them in whatever asset class has been lagging recently. This also makes fewer tax lots for my taxable accounts.

That’s it for portfolio holdings. In a separate update post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio.

Comparing Three Major Levers You Can Pull On Your Retirement Portfolio

One of the most popular posts on the Vanguard blog is My one piece of investing advice by Andy Clarke. Let’s start with the following baseline scenario:

  • Investor begins working at 25, but starts saving at age 35.
  • 12% savings rate
  • Moderate asset allocation (50% stocks and 50% bonds)
  • Salary starts at $30,000 but increases with age

Now, imagine there are three “levers” that you could pull in order to try and increase your final savings balance at retirement – asset allocation, savings rate, or time horizon. In each case, everything else in the scenario stays the same.

threedoors3

Which single option do you think has the most impact? Taken from the blog post, the results below are based the median balance found after running Monte Carlo computer simulations based on historical returns.

threedoorsresults

I would look past the absolute values and instead focus on the relative effect of each option. In case you haven’t figured it out, the one piece of investing advice is “save more”. The easiest lever to pull is a more aggressive asset allocation because it doesn’t require the pain of spending less and saving more (though you get more stomach-churning bumps and less reliable results). But here we see that saving just 3% more was equally powerful. If you pulled all three levers, your final balance would have more than doubled!

New Phased Retirement Program Details For Federal Workers

opmI’m always interested in non-traditional retirement stories, and saw that the US government just released their final regulations on Phased Retirement for federal workers. Phased retirement in general refers to transitioning from full-time to part-time work for a period of time before a traditional full retirement.

Participants will be able to start working half-time while collecting half of the pension they would get if they were to fully retire at that date. Then, when they fully retire, they’ll get the other half of their pension, adjusted for the additional work they did while being part-time. At least that’s my version of their lengthy explanation:

At entry into Phased Retirement, the employee’s annuity will be completed as if fully retired and then divided by two. That annuity would be paid while the individual worked a half time schedule receiving half pay. [...] When the Phased Retiree fully retires, there will be a computation of the annuity that would be payable if the employee had been employed full time and then divided by two prior to adjustment for survivor benefits. That amount would then be added to the original Phased Retirement Annuity, and that combined amount would then provide the basis for survivor annuity adjustment and benefits.

Participants will also get to keep their health and dental insurance, access to Thrift Savings Plan, and many other benefits. Fedweek has created a Federal Employee’s Guide to Phased Retirement [pdf], which is a lot easier to read than the actual regulations.

According to this Reuters article, the program should both save money and retain talent:

For the government, the program is expected to be a money saver. The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that 1,000 employees might take advantage of phased retirement annually, and would continue work for three years. That would cut required contributions to the government’s pension system by $427 million from 2013 to 2022, and boost worker contributions by $24 million.

But phased retirement also will help the government retain talent and expertise at a time when the “brain drain” from an aging workforce is a major concern. About 600,000 people, or 31 percent of the federal civilian workforce, will be eligible for retirement by September 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Phased retirees will be required to spend at least 20 percent of their time mentoring younger employees.

Employess under the legacy Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) will be eligible for phased retirement at age 55 with 30 years of service, or at 60 with 20 years of service. Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) employees must be age 60 with 20 years of service, or have 30 years of service and have reached their minimum retirement-eligible age. Agencies can send their Phased Retirement applications to OPM for processing starting November 6, 2014.

I think this is a neat idea and it looks like there will be strong interest. I hope the idea spreads. Even if your employer doesn’t offer an official policy on phased retirement, I know of several folks who have made their own custom arrangements.

Early Retirement Lesson #3: Home-Buying and Mortgage Advice

housemoneyHere’s another installment of what I would tell my kids about pursuing financial freedom (if they weren’t still in diapers). Previous topics have included the importance of savings rate and whether to focus on earning more or spending less. This time, I wanted to talk about buying a home and mortgages.

Should you buy or rent? Now, there are many buy vs. rent calculators. Here is the best one in my opinion. But as they say garbage in, garbage out, so be careful. Your answer will strongly depend on unpredictable things like future investment performance and/or home price appreciation. In general, the longer you plan on staying in a geographical location (say at least 5-7 years), the better it is to buy your own place. But if you are the nomadic type and want to travel the world, then renting can work out to be much better. In my experience, buying a house often ends up a lifestyle-based decision and not just about the numbers.

If you decide to buy, my opinion is that you should adjust your mortgage size and term to coincide with the date of retirement. I define retirement as when your expenses are exceeded by your non-work income like pensions, Social Security, annuity payments, stock dividends, rental income, or other investment income. Example scenarios:

  • If you love your job and plan on working for the next 30+ years, then go ahead and get a 30 year mortgage. Maybe you have a job that you could work part-time or isn’t very stressful. In this case you have lots of human capital and a long stream of future work income. Take on the 4% interest rate fixed for 30 years, and over time your salary will rise with inflation while your payment stays the same. Be sure to buy a house that you can afford while still investing for retirement. If anything, you could do a DIY biweekly payment plan and pay off that 30-year mortgage in under 24 years.
  • If you have the early retirement bug and want to retire in 15 years, then you should find a home that you can afford with a 15-year mortgage. The interest rate will be lower and as long as you can swing the payments in the beginning, you’ll quickly get used to it. The hard part is to find an affordable home with those higher monthly payments. The hardest part is to be satisfied with it as you’ll have the option and expectation from others to spend more. This is why I think the 15-year mortgage is a powerful tool for aspiring early retirees. It forces you to commit to a long-term lifestyle that fits your goals. Buy a house at age 25, and you’ll be done by 40.
  • Let’s say you receive a monetary windfall (inheritance, huge raise, IPO) and all of a sudden an early retirement is on the table. I wouldn’t necessarily pay off the mortgage completely if you aren’t ready to retire yet. You’ll want to balance the opportunity to invest in potentially higher-returning investments (stock mutual funds, dividend-paying stocks, other real estate) with pursuing the benefits of having a fully-owned house (less stress, less leverage, lower required monthly expenses). My solution would be to pay enough of the mortgage down such that with your usual monthly payments it advances your mortgage payoff date to match your retirement date. If you won the lottery and that date is tomorrow, then yes pay it all off!

One of my reasons for matching mortgage payoff with retirement date is psychological. When you are working, your paycheck is the same every month. This matches well with a fixed mortgage payment. But investment income is often variable. If the tenant in your investment property decides to squat and you have to spend months going through eviction proceedings, your rental income may drop to zero for a while. Many experts now recommend a dynamic withdrawal strategy from your investment portfolio, which would also result in a variable income. But mortgages are like an alligator. You must feed it; if you don’t then it eats you. Other expenses like travel and dining out, those can be adjusted. So I don’t like the idea of having a mortgage in retirement, especially if it is a large percentage of your overall expenses.

However, paying off the mortgage too early can also cause regret if the stock market is rising while you’re piling money into a 4% mortgage. If you are still in the accumulation phase, at times like now you’ll be reminded that you could be investing your paycheck in the market generating higher returns. But if you’re retired, that meant your nest egg was already big enough. If the market goes up, your next egg goes up and you are happier. If the market drops, hey, you already have a paid-off house. So that is why I don’t recommend paying off the mortgage too early, either.

Finally, early retirement with a paid-off house is great because lower expenses means smaller withdrawals from your portfolio, which also means a lower overall tax rate. In fact, with a mix of Traditional and Roth IRAs, we’ve seen that a couple could withdraw over $50,000 a year and still pay zero taxes on retirement. A lower income can also help you qualify for things like health insurance subsidies.

Short version to my kids: If you want to retire early and don’t move around much, buy a modest home where you can afford a 15-year mortgage payment and save at least 25% of your income. If your lifestyle entails lots of moving around, rent and save 50% of your income.

(Related: Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement? Digging Deep Into The Details)