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

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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)

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Early Retirement Lesson #2: Earn More vs. Spend Less

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Here’s more of my “old man wisdom” about early retirement. I call it that because the lessons that I learned may or may not fully apply to you, but they worked for me and that is why I’m sharing them. Last time I talked about savings rates and how you need to save between 30-50% of your income in order to retire early. That’s a lot, and it leads to another long-running debate: Should you spend your energy trying to earn more money, or spend less money?

The “Earn More” or Capitalist argument is that you can’t save your way to being financially free. You need more money. You need a positive attitude, the willingness to work hard, and a desire to be rich. Capitalists tend to talk about things like entrepreneurialism, multiple streams of income, passive income, leverage, real estate opportunities, and occasionally some sort of multi-level marketing program like Amway or Herbalife.

The “Spend Less” or Frugalist argument is that unnecessary spending is the core problem. You don’t need all that stuff. You just need more spending discipline. Most American households have an amazing, luxurious lifestyle with huge houses, more than one car per person, and enough calories to feed a football team. People who earn more, just spend more. It is amazingly common to earn $250,000 a year and still live paycheck-to-paycheck. Look at athletes like Antoine Walker and Vince Young who have each earned over $100 million and $30 million respectively but still filed for bankruptcy shortly after they lost their jobs.

The easy answer – which I have used myself – is to do both. What a cop-out answer! 🙂 Let’s try harder.

Studies have found that happiness is doesn’t go up after $60-$75k of annual income. Why is that? Perhaps it is because $60k will get you all the you need to be physically and socially comfortable. A house that isn’t embarrassing, reliable transportation, the ability to enjoy a dinner at Applebee’s with friends, the ability to travel occasionally. The median household income in the U.S. is roughly $51,000 a year. $60,000 is roughly 20% higher than that, making you “above average”. If you were to upgrade to a gated community, a Bentley, eating at 3-star Michelin restaurants, flying only on full-fare business class tickets, that won’t get you any better-quality friends. If you already make $200k and aren’t happy, then making $400k or $800k won’t make much difference.

Back to that 50% savings rate. If you’re happy with spending $60k (on average people spend 97% of their income), then you’d need to earn roughly $120k in order to save half. That seems like a good upper bound. If I already earned $120k or more, I’d probably focus on adjusting my spending to the 60k level instead of trying to make more.

On the flip side, as your income drops far below the median you start feeling the pinch more and more. A family of three that earns under $25,000 a year can be eligible for food stamps and other government subsidies. Earning $50k and saving 50% of that means living on $25k a year without being eligible for most government subsidies. Now, some people do live on less than 25k, but is rarely by choice (extreme counterexample). If I earned $50k and really wanted financial freedom, I would focus my energy on earning more money.

Now these numbers should probably be adjusted for the cost-of-living in your area. Look up the median income in your city or county; start here and here).

If your household income is less than 150% of the median income in your area, I would focus on earning more money. Start your own business. Invest in yourself through career advancement or a job change. For example if it is $60k, I would try to get to a household income of at least $90k. (That could be two people earning $45k each.) You could do a little frugalizing and spend $45k to get to a 50% savings rate.

If your household income is more than 200% of the median income in your area, I would focus on managing your expenses. If median income is $75k and your household income is $150k, then try and see if you can get to the spending level of a $75k household. Examine all of your expenses one-by-one. You will need to prioritize and probably cut back on areas that are less important to you. Early retirement is a big goal; you might need to make some big changes like moving to cheaper housing or dropping a car payment.

If you are in between 150% and 200% of the median income in your area, that is more of a gray area, and you may just need to do a little of both.

You can argue about the exact percentage cutoffs, but the basic idea is that I want a rule of thumb that accounts for the tendency of most people to maintain their social relationships (which are closely linked to happiness). At very low spending levels, it gets harder to maintain your social relationships and the self-discipline and energy needed can be better spent making more money. At a certain point, spending more money does not improve your relationships.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.