Paying off the mortgage is the American Dream and the first step toward retirement; it’s harder to retire with a mortgage payment blowing a hole through a fixed budget. Owning your home is the foundation of any vibrant financial plan. Until your home is unencumbered (without a mortgage) the bank still owns it in a manner of speaking (and they’ll remind you of it if you miss a payment).

Still, a home mortgage has its benefits. The traditional reasons to carry mortgage debt are bad reasons to carry the liability, but there are still a few good reasons.

We will review the traditional reasons for borrowing against your home and why the benefit is perceived rather than real. We will finish with the three reasons a mortgage can help you build wealth.

Revolving Mortgage

The debate is legend: should I pay off the mortgage faster or invest the extra instead? I recently finished that personal debate permanently.

In Accounting 101 they teach students how leverage (borrowed money) spikes investment returns. It all makes sense.  If I pay cash for a $100,000 home and it increases in price by $3,000 the first year I managed a meager 3% return on my investment (assuming you feel your primary residence is an investment). If instead you borrowed $90,000 and only invested $10,000 of your own money, the gain jumps to 30% ($3,000 increase in value divided by the investment of $10,000).

A mortgage is a powerful financial tool to build wealth. It also carries risks that can harm. Learn how to use a mortgage to build wealth.

A mortgage is a powerful financial tool to build wealth. It also carries risks that can harm.

They also teach of the risks of leverage in the classroom, but it doesn’t feel as real as the real world will make it. Leverage is wonderful animal when your assets are increasing in value. When the inevitable decline happens real pain begins.

In our above example the 30% gain is an illusion. If you have a mortgage against your home you will pay interest and that reduces the actual gain. Let’s assume a 5% interest rate on your mortgage. This equals $4,500 in interest the first year without consideration for the principle payments on each monthly payment. Your 30% gain went south darn fast, taking a $3,000 gain and turning it negative!

But if I invested the $90,000 (assuming I didn’t need a mortgage) and earned a return there I once again should be popping some mouth-watering returns. Maybe.

We’ll return to this in a moment.

Understanding how leverage can spike investment returns, I always subscribed to holding a mortgage. I bought my first home in 1986 and had a loan against it. It was paid off when the home was sold. (I’m embarrassed to say it was a mobile home, but in my defense I was single and enjoying life to the max. I was retired at the time (turned out to be gap years only) and immersing myself in an endless supply of books.)

From the mobile home I moved into a three bedroom ranch in town (1989); full mortgage in place. Opting to invest every dollar I had, the mortgage was never paid a penny sooner. Then I bought the farm (sounds morbid, doesn’t it?).

The farm is my final resting place and — embarrassed as I am to say it — was used as an ATM since 1995 when I took ownership. The farmhouse was unlivable, but I wanted a traditional barn and the 10 acres also appealed to me. I coughed up a $120,000 hairball with a $100,000 mortgage. I handled some remodeling on my own to make the farmhouse livable until I was ready to seriously remodel with an addition.

A few years later (somewhere around the year 2000) the mortgage was down to $40,000. It was time for a serious upgrade.

My 900 square foot farmhouse swelled to 3,000 square feet and cost close to $200,000 to remodel and expand. (I still swallow hard when I think of that. Not to be outdone, the bank (Farm Credit; they have awesome terms and interest rates for farmers) allowed me to borrow 80% of the value of the finished home; $400,000. That means I was able to grab another 80 grand and drop it into the market.

By 2008 the farm mortgage was under $100,000 again as I paid extra in spurts. The market tanked and good credit came to the rescue; I was able to take another quarter million. Into the market it went.

Of course I look like a hero because the timing of my remortgages coincided with market declines. This wasn’t an accident. When the market died I wanted to add to the account and the ATM was cheap money. (You can read the prior article linked above for more. The ends do NOT justify the means so the increase in investment value is a poor reason to toot my horn.)

I tell you this story for a reason. I struggled with paying off the mortgage for decades as many readers also do. I had the funds to retire the debt a long time ago, but chose to keep the mortgage anyway. Until last month.

At the beginning of this year I had whittled down the mortgage to ~$100,000. I didn’t want to sell assets/investments to pay the mortgage, causing a taxable event. Hyper-frugality set in. By June the mortgage was down to $57,000 and the sickness set in. It was time to kill the mortgage forever!

And I did it! On October 5th I made a special trip to the bank to put the final nail in the mortgage. (Mrs. Accountant came with to experience the magical moment. Either that or she didn’t trust me and was worried I might chicken out and drop it all in an index fund.)

Traditional Benefits of a Mortgage

Mortgages have been touted for a variety of reasons with promises of helping the economy, providing liquidity to the housing market and offering tax advantages to some. We’ll now run down many of the most popular traditional mortgage advantages and why it’s best to avoid the boondoggle.


Real estate is a known way to create and build wealth. Turn your property into a cash cow using the right financial tools.

Real estate is a known way to create and build wealth. Turn your property into a cash cow using the right financial tools.

1.) Tax Advantages. This is the most popular reason given for having a larger mortgage. Banks and other financial institutions have a vested interest (pun intended) to get you to borrow more. You know the advertisements: Mortgage interest may be tax deductible. Consult your tax professional. Rarely do people consult with their tax professional and the bank is counting on it. All people hear is mortgage interest is tax deductible.

Why this is bad advice. 

Every lie has a grain of truth to it. Mortgage interest is deductible. Unfortunately many will not benefit from the deductibility of the mortgage interest they pay because they don’t itemize. Also, paying the bank $10,000 in interest just so the IRS might give you up to $3,000 back is a really stupid move.


2.) You can afford more house. Yes, the more you borrow the more house you can buy. If every home was required to be purchased with cash the price of homes would drop precipitously.

Why this is bad advice.

Just because you can dig a deeper hole doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Dig a deep enough hole and it’s called a grave.


3.) You can invest the difference for a higher rate of return. Fair enough. If you borrow the maximum you free up capital for other investments.

Why this is bad advice. 

This concept is fine as long as you don’t take on more house than you can afford. And you have to actually invest the difference. After 35 years in the tax profession I can count on one hand with fingers left over of people who invested money earmarked for additional mortgage payments into an investment account. Sure, some may have invested the money without a formal accounting. But my suspicion (gathered from decades of experience) is that people tend not to save the money; they just increase lifestyle spending. All is fine until storm clouds appear.


7 ways to use your mortgage to build wealth.

7 ways to use your mortgage to build wealth.

4.) You don’t have to sell assets triggering a tax event to put more down on the house. Once again, fair enough. I used the same philosophy when paying my home off faster (fast!). Selling assets to put more down on a property can cause a serious tax issue. A larger mortgage (temporarily) makes a lot of financial sense.   

Why this is bad advice.

The larger the mortgage (the more leverage) the larger the risk something can go wrong. The investments you didn’t sell could decline in value. Selling to have a reduced mortgage means you forgo future gains on the sold investment. By keeping the asset and acquiring a larger mortgage you take on market risk while paying additional interest to boot.


5.) Investment gains. I hear it all the time, “The market goes up 10% a year while I’m only paying 5% interest.” It is true the market averages gains of about 10% per year on average. Some years the market increases more; other times the market gets cut in half! 

Why this is bad advice.

As we noted at the beginning of this article, leverage seems like a great idea. . . until you look under the hood. It might be easier to see with an income property.

The choice is to pay cash for the property or mortgage it to the hilt. If you mortgage the property you can invest the difference.

Let’s assume you purchase a $120,000 property for cash. If the value increases 3% the first year your net worth has increased $3,600, plus any profits from renting the property. Sound good, but the real estate agent introduced you to his banker friend and he says you can borrow $100,000. This means you can buy more properties (now you know why the agent recommended his banker) or keep the money in an index fund or other investment.

A good banker can make the numbers look compelling and this banker is gooood. You decide to borrow $100,000 for 15 years at a fixed 5%. We’ll use simple interest to keep this easy to follow. The value increased the same 3% as above (and also a common annual increase in value for real estate). The value of the property increased $3,600; the mortgage interest amounted to $5,000!

Yikes! You actually lost on the deal!

Maybe not. The property in a vacuum with the mortgage appears to have lost $1,400 the first year. Hopefully you didn’t invest in 5 more properties with the same mortgage deal because then you are hurting. The $100,000 you left invested earned, let’s say, the average 10%, or $10,000. Added together you made $8,600. It seems the mortgage was a good deal after all.

Buuuut. . .  You have to assume a good market (or a pretty good return on whatever investment you made) to justify the out-sized mortgage. If the investment under-performed, or, {gulp!} declined in value, you not only suffered a loss on the investment, the property has interest expenses in excess of the gain in value, increasing the total loss from the investment.



The above traditional advantages are not bad in and of themselves. Most people don’t decide between paying cash or a mortgage; they don’t have the money to pay cash so a mortgage is the only choice. Home ownership, especially as you begin your financial journey, almost always requires a mortgage.

Now we turn to non-traditional reasons to have a mortgage; reasons that might actually make sense.

text-align: center;”>Good Reasons to Have a Mortgage

Real, or good, reasons to have a mortgage are few. The risks of leverage are higher than most people anticipate. The odds are virtually 100% the economy will decline one or more times during the lifetime of a mortgage. Job loss or disability further add to mortgage risks. Rare is the person who doesn’t have a few times when the mortgage payment is a challenge.

All the negatives of the mortgage doesn’t mean the liability is totally worthless. There area a few reasons I can think of to have a mortgage, reasons worth their weight in gold.


There are good reasons to have a mortgage. Tax benefits are the smallest benefit. A mortgage can do a whole lot more when used properly.

There are good reasons to have a mortgage. Tax benefits are the smallest benefit. A mortgage can do a whole lot more when used properly.

1.) Free up capital. Leverage entails risk; no working capital can be a greater risk! If you pay cash for a property and have no working capital to deal with maintenance, insurance, property taxes or other expenses you can find yourself in just as deep as if you have a large mortgage.

Landlords should be acutely aware of this issue. Vacancies early in property ownership can cause serious financial harm. Without a mortgage the landlord should have a really good cash flow. But, you need a maintenance fund and resources to cover insurance and taxes should the property refuse to rent early in the ownership cycle.

The same can be said for those buying a primary residence. Without any emergency fund, a minor unexpected expense can create hardship.   

Solutions to potential problems. 

Up till now I’ve used the all-or-none approach. Taking out a small mortgage can free up capital to deal with any of the problems listed above.

Another very low-cost solution is a home equity line of credit (HELOC). For a couple hundred dollars you can secure a line of credit against the property. If things go well you have no additional mortgage expenses; if cash gets tight you have a resource to manage the bumps.


2.) Working capital. In business, investment properties and even your personal life, working capital is necessary to achieve your financial goals. Being property rich and cash poor means you have to pass on obvious opportunities for financial gain.   


When I bought my office building I didn’t want a mortgage. Profits are really nice when you don’t owe anyone anything. However, the seller wanted to spread his taxes out so I accepted a land contract (7 year amortization; seller allowed me to make a final lump sum in the fifth year).

But owning my office building requires ~ $200,000 of my net worth to be tied up in real estate. If an opportunity comes along I might have to pass and that would bother me. (It really would!) So I’ve always had a line of credit in my business. Originally it was attached to the building; now I have an unsecured line of credit. This allows me to smooth out the lumpiness of my business income (spring is good; year-end not so much).

I haven’t used the LOC for a few years so the only cost in $150 per year. Still, if I ever needed funds I can dip into the LOC for a very short term. This allows me to invest excess capital more quickly without fear I’ll need it before the good times return the following tax season.


3,) Motivation. This is the reason I wrote this post. I knew from the beginning if I ever paid off my mortgage, to be totally debt-free top to bottom, I would no longer have a financial motivation to get out of bed. And just as I predicted, I’m feeling the slump.

Financially I had the money to pay the house off decades ago without even a minor hardship. My logic was that I invested the extra money I borrowed so it was okay to keep the spur of a mortgage in my shorts.

Don’t worry too much, kind readers. I still roll out of bed around noon and put in an hour or two before calling it a day. (I’m joking, guys!)

Financial independence is different from debt-free! A mortgage always focused my attention. It helped me push my frugality (defense) while encouraging more income growth (offense). The frugal part has been good since the mortgage is gone; good habits continue on.

However, I find myself thinking more and more about how much I don’t have to do now that I’m mortgage free. I need $2,000 a month to live without a mortgage payment (a bit more during the winter heating season; a bit less in the summer). The nice thing about a mortgage is I needed lots of income to fully fund retirement accounts, add to non-qualified accounts and then pay extra on the mortgage. Without the mortgage money is no longer a driving force even on a minor scale!


And this is where we stop for now. My next post will deal with finding motivation when money is no longer an issue. Debt creates (or at least should) a crisis environment. As my good friend Mr. Money Mustache says, “It’s not a debt emergency; it’s a DEBT EMERGENCY!!!

I used a DEBT EMERGENCY to prod me in the past. Now I need to grow up and find motivation from other places. While debt can focus one’s attention, it is a poor way to achieve a goal! I used it way too long.

Debt is a tool with serious risks. Debt in and of itself isn’t bad, but it can create the illusion it is making things better when all it is really doing is increasing risk. We can do better than that.

Paying off my last liability has been liberating. I’m glad I did it. There are many ways to refocus attention so you can continue to create value in the world around you and in your life.

I think you’ll enjoy the answers I publish next week.

Happy Thanksgiving, American readers!


More Wealth Building Resources

Credit Cards can be a powerful money management tool when used correctly. Use this link to find a listing of the best credit card offers. You can expand your search to maximize cash and travel rewards.

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 


You don't own your home until the mortgage is paid off; the bank does. Mortgage payoff tips you can use to become debt-free. Dave Ramsey #wealthyaccountant #daveramsey #mortgagetips #debtfree #mortgagefree #mortgagepayofftipsOne of the most difficult decisions you can make as you struggle toward financial independence is deciding between paying off the mortgage quickly or investing the excess funds instead. The water is more muddy when we see a roaring stock market for as far back as the eye can see coupled with low interest rates. The answer seems simple and obvious: pay off the mortgage as slowly as possible and invest the difference in broad market-based index funds.

You might also think people well past the mile-marker of financial independence would have an even easier choice. Once the risk of a market decline passes due to your excessive net worth, it is tempting to automatically choose the course with the greatest opportunity for maximum gain.

Your favorite accountant has struggles with the same decision: pay it off  or invest. It all came to a head recently when the topic came up on Facebook. I gave my opinion and the fur flew. Before long my inbox was stuffed with requests for a fully fleshed out explanation of my position.

My Struggle

For someone working his entire life in finance this shouldn’t be a problem, you’d think. But it isn’t that simple.

Any first year accounting student knows leverage (debt) can spike returns. Less understood—for reasons I can’t understand—is the effect leverage has when the investment goes down or even treads water. Leverage does enhance profits nicely in a climbing market. When the market goes sideways the interest expense of leverage starts to hurt. In a down market is turns brutal with losses magnified and interest accruing to rub salt in the wound.

When it come to real estate a false sense of security sets in. Unlike securities, real estate doesn’t face a margin call if prices decline. The bank will not borrow you more in such cases, but you don’t have to come up with more money over the regular payment. As long as things eventually turn around you are fine. At least that is the theory.

Should you pay off your mortgage early or invest the difference? Here are mortgage payoff tips to help you decide between investing and paying the mortgage off faster. #wealthyaccountant #mortgage #mortgagetips #mortgagepayofftips #creditscore #DaveRamseyArmed with this information I begin my journey. I bought the farm (No, really! A beautiful 10 acre farm with hiking trails and a pond. What did you think? I died?) in the mid 1990s for $120,000. Five or so years later the mortgage was down to ~$40,000.

My old farmhouse needed serious work. We jacked up the house to secure the foundation, remodeled the original home and made serious additions. The Accountant household went from 950 square feet of living space to over 3,000. (No, I’m not proud of my extravagance.)

The remodeling and additions cost more than $200,000, all put on the credit card, aka, the new mortgage. The Accountant household had a serious debt now.

The good news is that I had no other debt and a net worth approaching eight figures. Our home appraised at $400,000 and change. Borrowing was relatively cheap and there was no real risk to such indebtedness in my situation. I did make payments well beyond the minimum to pay the house off sooner. (Some habits are hard to kill.)

By the time the world ended in 2008 – 09 I had the mortgage down to ~ $100,000, maybe a bit lower. The stock market tanked and I had plenty of room to borrow more against my home.

With my credit the bank was willing to give me pretty much anything I wanted. They needed to lend to low risk people and businesses and I was the lowest of risks. Since I have a farm I qualify for special loans only available to farmers. As luck would have it, I snagged a 2.125% loan fixed for 30 years!

Not being one for half measures I borrowed nearly $300,000, reducing my home equity to the lowest level in my life. I dropped the cash in the market.

It wasn’t a long wait. The market stopped declining and then started rising in fits and starts. For almost 10 years now my gambit has worked well. I made extra payments once again, but not as much as in past times.

Five years ago the mortgage was ~ $300,000. The market turned the borrowed funds into a bigger number. I refused selling the investments. But I increased my payments to reduce the large number on my loan statement. (It bothered me!)

Income from my practice now started going into loan reduction over more market investments. Yes, the market kept climbing, but I wanted that mortgage much lower. I found it disturbing to have the highest debt level in my life when I enjoyed the highest net worth of the same life. Even my business lived debt-free. This house thing, while a good move according to first-year accounting students, occupied my thoughts better used on other projects.

I also turned up the frugal. I learned to cut costs like a crazy man! Coupled with a nice business income I was able to shave $50,000 or more from the mortgage each year. My goal was to reduce the interest expense. Yes, the rate was low, but $300,000 at 2% is still $6,000!

Last year the mortgage collapsed to under $200,000. The race was on. Without resorting to asset sales I refocused my efforts to reduce the mortgage. By the end of last year the mortgage stood a hair into the six figures.

The Final Assault

There are several dry-erase boards around my office. Many are filled with cryptic messages on my personal and business finances. I use a type of shorthand known only to me. Sometimes employees ask what all the gibberish means. I tell them if it’s pertinent to their job.

Here is why you must start paying extra on your mortgage today. Investing the extra mortgage payments instead does not work. Pay off your mortgage in 5 years or less. #wealthyaccountant #savingmoney #personalfinance #moneyA dry-erase board outside my office door has a series of numbers. The cryptic numbers were my madness to retire the farm mortgage. The original goal was to pay $56,800 on the mortgage this year, including interest. (Don’t ask why $56,800; it’s along story.)

As I entered summer it looked as if I could meet my goal. By late summer I met the goal for the entire year. Something snapped in my head when the mortgage hit $58,000 and change. I wanted it gone and now!

In the last two months I drove the mortgage from $58,000 to under $16,000. After I return home from FinCon in Orlando I will move money from a side business to retire the mortgage.

For the first time in my adult life I will be debt free before Halloween. That sounds so insane to me. I can scream “I’m debt-free!” to Dave Ramsey for the first time since the early 1980s while my net worth is well into the eight figures. I kept the mortgage to pad my net worth when the advantages would do absolutely nothing for my lifestyle.

And once again I was forced to reconsider my choice as the course of financially savvy individuals raked me over the coals on Facebook.

Why I Took the Course I Did

When I gave my opinion in a finance group on why I felt paying off the mortgage was better than investing the difference I was mobbed. In a matter of moments there was nothing left but a grease spot  on the pavement.

My argument was simple. Paying off all debt not only reduces risk of default, but frees all the time spent thinking about managing the debt. That was my come to Jesus moment. I discovered I was spending more time thinking about my $300,000 mortgage than the millions I had in investments!

The mortgage was always planned. Payments were on automatic, but extra payments had to be considered. I also kept thinking about how long I wanted to keep this darn thing. Am I willing to keep a mortgage until I’m 70 just to kite the difference I could make in the market? The answer, once I seriously thought about it, was NO!!! And the more I thought about it the more I realized I was wasting quality time on a debt I don’t even need.

The only argument against my solution was that the market does a heck of a lot better than the 2 1/8% I pay on the mortgage. Once I thought about that I realized it was a stupid argument. Yes, it worked well for me since the market has been climbing with barely a hiccup for a decade. What they were really saying is that the ends justify the means. I disagree.

Investing versus extra mortgage payments? It isn't an easy choice. Learn the best choice for you. #wealthyaccountant #mortgage #money #mortgagetips #payments #investments #invest #timeI won because the market was up a lot. How would I look if the market pulled a 1968 to 1982 when the market went nowhere for 14 years? Not nearly as smart, I would gather.

After careful consideration I came to the conclusion (took me long enough considering my age) that paying off the mortgage as fast as possible, regardless of tax deductions or the interest rate, is the only correct course. Here is why: The mortgage is guaranteed while the market is not. The market may climb or it could sink or stagnate. It’s happened for long periods of time. We sometimes forget our history. The mortgage is always there until paid, plus all the interest. No reprieve.

The other expense a mortgage has is time. Even with payments on automatic you still need to manage funds to make the payment. You either earn money or transfer from an investment into the account funds will be drawn from. Don’t forget or there will be penalties!

Time, more than interest or money, were the deciding factor. You might think debt doesn’t take time and allows you to spike your investment returns. Well, it does take time and thought and planning. That time comes from personal time. And debt is a harsh mistress when investments turn south.

I was a Dave Ramsey Endorsed Local Provider (ELP) for years. I have no problem putting every expense I can on the credit card. I pay it in full each month with auto-pay. I also make room for modest mortgage debt. I’ve changed my tune.

I think debt-free is the only way to go. Even if you have massive wealth outside the debt with zero risk to your FI (financial independence) status, it is still better to retire the mortgage on the primary residence, second home and rental properties. (Income properties do very well without mortgages, even in terrible economic times. Hard to lose when there are no monthly payments.)

There is one last thing I noticed as I approach the final payment on my home. Mrs. Accountant and I are giddy as school girls. (I don’t look good in a dress so no ugly comments.) Breaking the million dollar net worth marker didn’t get so much as a “Yippie!” out of Mrs. A. Every time I go to Farm Credit and drop another 10 grand or so she walks on air.

So do I. I must confess I feel a heavy weight lifted off my shoulders. I can’t believe paying off a debt that didn’t even register in the household budget affected my subconscious so much. But it did! It is impossible to understand how much debt affects you until you remove it. How much weight bares down on you until it is removed.

I always thought it was about how much I was worth. No more. I think you are a helluva lot richer without debt than with a massive net worth. I feel better about myself financially now than ever before. I always knew I owed somebody. Now that is gone and I can yell:


I hope you will join me. You can’t believe the colors on this side of the fence.



More Wealth Building Resources

Credit Cards can be a powerful money management tool when used correctly. Use this link to find a listing of the best credit card offers. You can expand your search to maximize cash and travel rewards.

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

IMG_20160818_150949Low interest rates have raised concerns if it is proper to pay off debt early. The good news is there are ways to determine if you should pay down debt, including the home mortgage, or invest funds to accelerate net worth building. Low interest credit card teaser rates and equity lines of credit add another dimension to the ever evolving world of personal finance. There are two factors to consider when balancing between reducing debt or increasing investments: the return on the investments over the cost of capital and the risk factor.

Personal finance can learn a thing or two from corporate finance when it comes to debt and investment. Just like a business, when a household decides to pay down debt there is a tradeoff. Accelerating debt reduction takes money from other areas, mostly spending or investment, but also reduces risks associated with debt servicing. In this post I will assume you have reduced your spending to a reasonable level and the trade-offs are between debt retirement and investment only.

Think like a Wealthy Accountant

Business owners understand investing capital. To survive, businesses must invest capital to preserve and grow future revenue and profits. Without investment it is only a matter of time before the business stalls followed by decline. At the same time a business invests in its future it also has to keep an eye on debt levels. Many small businesses choose to operate with no debt, funding investment internally; many households do the same. However, a home purchase usually is accompanied by a mortgage. The question now revolves around paying the mortgage off faster or investing the extra funds into investments generating a better return than the mortgage interest rate.

Business schools teach that wealth is created when companies invest capital with a greater return than the cost of capital. This is the right place to start when reviewing personal finances. Low interest rates make it easier to find investments throwing off returns greater than the mortgage interest rate. Currently the S&P 500 yields just over 2%. Alternative investments like Lending Club reasonably return 8-12%. Many corporate bonds throw a higher interest rate than the lowest rate mortgages as long as you are willing to assume risk.

Retirement accounts have significant tax benefits shifting decisions toward investing over debt reduction. For example, if you are in the 25% tax bracket and contribute to a traditional (deductible) retirement account you are guaranteed an upfront 25% advantage from tax savings alone. Any employer matching increases the advantage of investing over addition debt reduction.


It all looks good on paper. Since many investments have a higher return than mortgage debt, it makes sense to be mortgaged to the hilt (leveraged) to maximize wealth building. But that assumes your investments are 100% risk free. Your mortgage is guaranteed to come due or you lose your home and any accumulated equity. Investments do not afford such guarantees. Sure, government bonds and certain bank deposits are guaranteed, but at rates well below the interest rates of any mortgage.

Credit cards now have teaser rates as low as 2%. Clients sometimes want my blessing to borrow from their credit card interest free for a year with a 2% fee, in effect a 2% annual interest rate.* The idea has merit because, once again, it looks good on paper. Unfortunately, the loan comes due in a year regardless and if you don’t pay in full the interest rate goes through the roof. Therefore I never encourage this hyper-risky activity.

Back to the mortgage. People with great credit scores can borrow against their home for around 3%. The broad stock market averages around 7% per year over long periods of time. The current 2% dividend yield is the only real cash flow.** The only way to service debt with money invested in an index fund is from another source. I hate the idea. If the other source dries up you are screwed if the index fund is also down. The dividend yield is not guaranteed, though reasonably stable with an upward bias, is not enough to make full debt service payments. It is safer to not borrow, instead taking the debt service payments you would have made from the other source of income and dollar cost averaging into the index fund over time.

Now for an example of what could work. Alternative investments like Lending Club have significantly higher rates of return on a broad basket of notes owned. A good mix of medium and lower quality notes on the Lending Club or Prosper platforms have high default rates, but with an investment spread among hundreds or thousands of notes the risk is mitigated. I have an account at Prosper and Lending Club. Results have remained steady at around 8% for Prosper and 10-12% for Lending Club.***

Logic would dictate you should max out every lending facility you have and drop it into Lending Club. Except it would be insanity! Yes, I understand Lending Club has better cash flow from loan payments to fund debt servicing without selling notes owned, but there is no guarantee past results will continue. Even wealthy people should only consider micro lending for a small percentage of their portfolio. Borrowing money to invest in a risky business like Lending Club is ill advised. On paper it looks great. However, even a small hiccup could destroy a massive portion of your wealth, even wipe you out. No accountant worth their salt would ever encourage such reckless behavior.

Balancing Act and the Sleep at Night Factor

I will now share how I handle the issue of debt reduction and investing personally. I use several credit cards for a variety of businesses, paying them in full each month.**** The only interest I pay is on my mortgage. I have a farm and farmers get really good deals from the government. My mortgage is from Farm Credit at 2.125 percent. At such a low rate I have struggled with paying the thing off. If, I argue with myself, interest rates ever go up I will have a guaranteed way to make more money than the mortgage interest. It is a big ‘if’. I thought interest rates would be higher by now so my theory was shot down already.

A few years ago my mortgage was around $300,000; it is now under $130,000. I will retire the mortgage in the next 18-24 months regardless what the markets or interest rates do. The mortgage balance was so high a few years back because I used a questionable strategy I alluded to above: I borrowed and invested the money in an index fund. The market treated me well, but there was no guarantee and I took a big (and unwarranted) risk. My income level easily handled the mortgage payment without selling an investment. Currently I max out my retirement accounts and then funnel the remaining free cash flow to mortgage reduction. Small amounts are sometimes diverted to interesting investments, but the goal is now to be 100% debt-free.

There is a “sleep at night” factor involved. How much money is enough? The stunt I pulled was for more money only, a chump’s game. It worked out, but it also could have set me back.

I think eliminating all debt except the mortgage has got to be a top priority in everyone’s life. If you can’t afford an auto without a loan, you can’t afford that auto. Credit card debt is unacceptable ever! Credit cards are a tool to run your business and personal life easier, not a lending tool. Every credit card I have is set to auto-pay the entire balance on the due date. Credit cards have great rewards programs which can benefit users as long as you never carry a balance.

Student loans scare the shit out of me. I never had a student loan in my life and refused to sign one for my daughter going to school. First off, they are hard to discharge if the crap hits the fan in your life. Student loans follow you around like the plague. My opinion is student loans are a priority to eliminate. Self-fund your education instead. The first test of college is getting there. If you don’t have the money, get a scholarship. If you can’t get a scholarship you are not ready for college.

I am more lenient on mortgages. I understand owning a home without a mortgage is difficult in the beginning. However, your loan to value should be reduced to under 50%. That means if you have a $500,000 home, the mortgage should be less than $250,000. At some point you want a plan to retire even this vestige of debt.

A Good Plan

Here is what I consider a good plan balancing debt reduction and investment.

  • High interest debt goes first before funding anything else. Credit cards and payday loans fall into this group; student loans and mortgages generally do not.
  • If you have bad credit and have a high interest auto loan, sell the auto and find alternative transportation or a vehicle you can afford with cash.
  • Now you can fund your retirement accounts. The minimum is the level your employer matches. Once you reach that level it is time to bifurcate your finances between further investments and mortgage debt reduction. If you only have a mortgage or maybe a student loan you can now ramp up investment into your retirement plan. A good goal might include maxing your retirement plans before increasing payments toward debt reduction due to the heavy tax gains retirement plans offer.
  • Once the retirement plan is filled each year it is time to set aside money in non-qualified investments (non-retirement accounts) and accelerate mortgage reduction until the mortgage is retired.

The final goal is to be debt-free most of the time. A short-term mortgage to move to a new home might be wiser than selling an investment. Maximizing wealth using leverage is certain to end in tears. It looks good on paper and some accountants even promote the idea of leverage to spur wealth building. The Wealthy Accountant is not one of them. Debt is a useful tool when used sparingly. Most people who are rich have either no debt or modest levels of debt.

I could probably earn more than a 2.125% return on my invested capital; I am still paying off the mortgage. My reason is simple. Without any bills to pay I am free to go and do what I want when I want without worry. And nothing beats a good night of sleep.

* Yes, I understand the annual interest rate is higher than 2% in the example due to payments required during the year. Just play with me. It is an example to highlight how the process works and if it is a viable personal finance choice.

** Don’t even start with me on selling options to generate an income stream. I’ll slap you silly.

*** I started withdrawing funds from Prosper a few years ago. When Lending Club had some legal issues a year ago I started withdrawing funds there, too. New notes purchased tend to spike your rate of return. With both Prosper and Lending Club I noticed a large decline in my return once new investments stopped. For example, Lending Club was always yielding over 12% when I kept reinvesting, but dropped to just over 10% when I started to withdraw funds. The rate is still falling and my guess is it will end around 8%, where Prosper is.  Something investors holding Lending Club and similar investments need to consider.

**** I have a post in the queue on how to use credit cards correctly, paying no interest and receiving a large amount of tax-free income. I am waiting for final approval of a credit card aggregator so I can link the credit cards with the greatest tax-free money attached.