How Mortgage Debt Can Derail Retirement

Most homeowners look forward to that day when they can finally make their last mortgage payment and truly call their home their own. Most financial advisors advise clients to try and reach that day before they hit retirement age. Unfortunately, not everyone has the means to do so, and instead will find themselves still in debt when their long awaited last day of work finally hits. Some may even find themselves unable to keep up their mortgage payments once they retire and could face losing their homes.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the number of people who have not paid off their mortgage by retirement age is growing. In 2011, the percentage of homeowners who have reached age 65 and over and still owe on their mortgage was 30%, up from 22% in 2001. And for those homeowners who are age 75 and older, the rate shot up from 8.4% to 21.2%. The median mortgage debt for seniors has also increased during that time by a whopping 82%, from about $43,000 to $79,000. (For related reading, see: Burdening Your Retirement with a Mortgage.

Upping Your Mortgage Payments

The increasing level of debt on the backs of Americans seniors could eventually be a big problem, affecting the retirement security of millions of the country’s senior citizens. And while there are some advisors who say that holding onto a mortgage is a good way to reduce one’s income taxes — by being able to write off interest payments — most agree that no debt is good debt. In fact, many seniors end up unable to enjoy their own retirement years in the ways they had imagined because of their need to continue to pay off their mortgage and other debt. (For related reading, see: Should Retirees Still Have Mortgages?)

To help avoid this scenario, some financial advisors suggest that their clients try to pay off their mortgages at a faster rate while they are working, so that they can be free and clear of it in retirement. They suggest designing a plan to see how much you can comfortably increase your monthly payments and for how long, and then implementing it as soon as possible. It’s true that while this maneuver may decrease the amount you have left to invest each month into a savings or retirement plan, the move may actually be more beneficial to your financial well-being in the long run. The stock market has seen unparalleled rises over these last few years, but that won’t last forever, and when it drops, so will your savings and investments. If you had planned to use those savings to pay off your mortgage after you retire, you may be surprised to find that a lot less of it is available when you need it. (For more, see: Should Retirees Pay Off Their Mortgage?)

Another option for paying off your mortgage faster is to make biweekly payments instead of monthly ones. Doing so over a one year period will result in you making 13 payments instead of 12. So it’s a way to reduce your debt at a quicker pace without feeling the pinch. Or you can look into the option of refinancing your mortgage for a shorter length of time or at a better rate. Some people also opt to sell their homes, especially after the children have left, and move to a smaller home attached to a smaller mortgage (or one with no mortgage at all). (For related reading, see: Refinancing Your Home After 50: Does It Make Sense?)

Views on Debt Differ by Generation

Peoples' perception of debt has changed from one generation to the next. Those who lived through the Depression would often try to avoid debt at all cost. And they would never have considered retiring if they were still holding debt in their portfolios. But the Baby Boomer generation doesn’t seem to hold those same views. Some Boomers have waited until after they have retired to build or buy their dream home, putting themselves right back into debt. Doing so is a big gamble that may not only increase your stress level, but it could also deny you the financial freedom you have worked so hard to achieve. The goal, advisors agree, should be to have fewer fixed payments in retirement, freeing up money for all those other things you enjoy doing but haven’t yet had a chance to while working.

To reach your goal of peace of mind in retirement, many advisors suggest creating a budget, so that you can figure out how to reduce some of your expenses and pay off more debt. You should start by paying off any credit card debt and then move onto your mortgage. Or maybe divert some of the money you have been putting into your retirement fund and use it to pay down your mortgage at a faster pace.

Working longer is another option for ensuring that an oversized mortgage doesn’t plague your retirement. Even working one extra year can do a lot to help you reach your goal of paying down your debt. The goal of retirement should not simply be to stop working, it should also be to reach a financially secure place. (For more, see: Is Working Longer a Viable Retirement Plan?)

The Bottom Line

One of the greatest joys of retirement is being able to relax, knowing that one of your biggest expenses — your mortgage — has finally been paid off. To do so, you need to start planning now and reducing your debt while you are still working. (For related reading, see: The Reverse Mortgage: A Retirement Tool.)