Why pre-paying your mortgage may not be a good idea

This is not a subject I wanted to tackle in my first post! I find people hold very strong almost religious-like beliefs when it comes to housing and mortgages. However, as I was relaxing on my train ride to work a couple of days ago noticed and read the following article in TheGlobeandMail.

“Why paying off a mortgage beats investing”

The way to dispel an illusion is to take the argument, deconstruct it, and then disprove it point-by-point. In that way both of the blog posts linked to in the article are great starting points because they reflect widely held views on mortgages and money.

Interest savings and investment returns are two sides of the same coin

The author writes

“The tax deduction essentially gives you about 25% of your interest payment back. There are people out there that keep their mortgage to pay the bank $400 in order to get $100 back from the government. According to my math, that’s a $300 loss.”

Then he continues with…

““By paying off my entire mortgage in just over three years, I was forced to pay only $6,000 in interest payments instead of the $70,000 that I would have incurred by carrying my mortgage the full 30 years.”

Never pay off your mortgage unless you have no other debt left

Assuming the author means $400 in interest per month and assuming a 2.5% fixed mortgage rate this means the hypothetical person would need to pre-pay $192,000 of their mortgage to save $400 x 12 = $4,800 a year in interest. Therefore right away you can see saving $400 a month in mortgage interest is not very realistic for most people.

However, let’s say you have an extra $5,000 sitting around at the end of the year and want to decide where to put it.

If you put it in into your mortgage you will save approx.. $5,000 * 2.5% = $125 per year or $10.42 per month.

Sounds good? What if you instead pay off your credit cards?

If you pay of an 18% credit card you will save approx. $5,000 * 18% = $900 per year or $75 per month. That’s much better!

How much of your mortgage would you have to pay off to generate $75 per month in savings? It turns out it would take $36,000!

Therefore paying off $5,000 of credit card debt saves you the exact same amount of money as paying off $36,000 of your mortgage!

The same calculation can be done for car loans (and leases!), credit lines and virtually any other type of debt you may have. Mortgage debt is by far the cheapest type of debt so unless you own everything else out right it you should not consider pre-paying it at all.

Here is a chart comparing the approx. interest savings from pre-paying various types of debt:

Interest Savings from paying off $5000
Credit Card (18%) Unsecured Credit Line (8%) Auto Loan (5%) Mortgage (2.5%)
Per Month $75.00 $33.33 $20.83 $10.42
Per Year $900.00 $400.00 $250.00 $125.00

If you have no other debt except a mortgage than what matters is the interest rate

The author of the article states

“ For example, the S&P 500 was worth $1,441.47 on January 7th, 2000. Fifteen years later, the S&P 500 has risen to $2,025.90. It sounds like a pretty impressive increase doesn’t it? But, when factoring in the 15 year time-span, we soon understand that the average growth during this period was only 2.3% per year. That’s pretty crappy. I think many of us would have rather paid off our home mortgage.”

There are two mistakes in the above statement that show either the author does not have a good grasp on how investing in stocks actually works or he’s ignoring facts to prove his own point.

  • He forgot to count the dividends!

Dividends are payments made to you when you hold a particular stock, or in the case of the S&P 500, it’s payments received from 500 different stocks. It’s a little like rent when you buy an investment property. The author considered only the price increase but not the rent you get from your tenants and concluded you haven’t done very well!

With dividends reinvested the annual per year return for that particular 15 year period was actually 4.24%.

  • He cherry picked the investing time period to suit his point

If we consider last 10 years the per year average total return (including dividends) is 7.67% and if we consider last 20 years it’s 9.85%.

If we look at the 15 year period ending in the year 2009, just after the worst stock market collapse in modern history, the per year average return was still 8.04%!

Why does the particular 15 year period the author chose look so bad? It just happens that 15 years ago there was gigantic internet stock bubble which drove stock prices far above where they would otherwise be. If you had bought at the exact peak of that bubble then your return would in fact be 4.24% per year, the worst 15 year return of the last 45 years, but still 70% higher than your current 2.5% mortgage rate.

The historical median total one year return on the S&P500 since 1970 has been 15.79%.

Assuming the $5,000 in the previous example was invested in the S&P 500 over the course of an average year it would be worth $5,789.50 at the end of the year. That’s an extra $789.50 and significantly higher than the $125 you would have saved by pre-paying your mortgage.

(You can check the S&P 500 returns here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500#Annual_returns)

Here is the same chart as above except this time including the median one year return for the S&P500:

Expected benefit from paying off or investing $5000
Credit Card (18%) S&P 500 Investment (15.79%) Unsecured Credit Line (8%) Auto Loan (5%) Mortgage (2.5%)
Per Month $75.00 $65.83 $33.33 $20.83 $10.42
Per Year $900.00 $789.50 $400.00 $250.00 $125.00

For most people I would recommend paying off the unsecured credit line and perhaps even the auto loan as the median S&P500 return is not guaranteed. However, the right action depends on more than I have time to explain in a single blog post. The bottom line though is I would never recommend them paying off their mortgage in the current rate environment.

In my next post: What if it happens to be a particularly bad year for the stock market? Isn’t it better to get a small guaranteed return from paying down my mortgage rather than risk money on investments?

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