Kelley wrote recently with the sort of dilemma I get asked about all of the time: Is it better to invest or to prepay a mortgage? We’ve covered this topic in the distant past, but it’s time to review the debate for current readers. First, let’s look at Kelley’s e-mail:

My husband and I are on the right track. At age 25, our only debt lies in our home mortgage. We have the six-month emergency fund in place, I currently meet the 3% 401(k) match offered by my employer, and I started a Roth IRA for myself and my husband last year. I started each Roth IRA with $4,000.

My financial advisor recommended for us to max out each of our Roth IRAs each year. My husband disagrees. He thinks paying off the house is a bigger priority. Starting this year, we’ve made an extra payment on our house each month. If we continue doing this, we can have our house paid off in nine years rather than 30 years. However, we can’t do both.

Currently we’ve decided to throw $1,000 into each Roth each year until the house is paid off. Is this the wise decision? Or is it better to put more toward the Roth IRA and less toward the house?

I understand either option is good because I’m saving money. I’m just curious of which route would be wiser.

Kelley’s right: Both of these options are good. This is like choosing between an apple and an orange. Both taste good, and they’re good for you &madsh; but is one better for you in the long run?

What the experts say
Three years ago, when we last covered this topic (holy cats! — where has the time gone?), I collected the following roundup of advice from personal-finance books:

  • Ric Edleman (Ordinary People, Extraordinary Wealth): Never own your home outright. Instead, get a big 30-year mortgage and never pay it off — regardless of your age and income. “Every time you send an extra $100 to your mortgage company, you deny yourself the opportunity to invest that $100 somewhere else.”
  • Suze Orman (The Laws of Money): Invest in the known before the unknown. Paying off your mortgage offers a guaranteed return on investment. “You cannot live in a tax return. You cannot live in a stock certificate. You live in your home.”
  • Elizabeth Warren (All Your Worth): Save 20% of your income. Use 10% for retirement savings, 5% to accelerate your mortgage, and 5% to save for future dreams. “Paying off your home also does something many financial planners neglect to mention: It gives you freedom. Once that mortgage is gone, just imagine all the freedom in your wallet.”
  • Dave Ramsey (The Total Money Makeover): Prepay your mortgage if you can, but only after you’ve saved an emergency fund, and only if you’re putting at least 15% of your income toward retirement. Don’t use a program designed by a broker; use your own self-discipline.
  • Dominguez and Robin (Your Money or Your Life): “Pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible.” This book, too, was written when interest rates were higher. Also, the authors emphasize frugality over investing.

Financial authors don’t agree on this subject. Maybe the personal finance gurus writing for the web can clear things up?

  • Liz Pulliam Weston at MSN Money: Don’t rush to pay off the mortgage. “You’ve got better things to do with your money, like saving for retirement, building an emergency cushion or even living it up a little.”
  • Walter Updegrave at CNN Money: If you’ve funded your retirement, and if it will make you happy, then pay down the mortgage. Otherwise, it makes more sense to invest.
  • Laura Rowley at Yahoo! Finance: Using very conservative figures, investing instead of prepaying the mortgage yields an extra $400 per year. If you feel compelled to pay down your mortgage, do it. But realize you’re paying a price to do so. (She offers more details at her blog, as well as tips on how to estimate the investment return you need to earn to make it worthwhile.)
  • Bankrate: Pay down your mortgage if your investments would be conservative. Invest if you’re planning to do so for the long term.
  • USA Today: It depends on your income, your monthly expenses, your risk tolerance, and your desire to own your home free and clear.
  • The Dollar Stretcher: Mathematically, it makes more sense to invest, but it all depends on your risk tolerance.
  • My fellow pfbloggers at Bargaineering and Million Dollar Journey recommend that a person do a little of both: pay down the mortgage some and invest some. Free Money Finance says: “If you have the discipline to save/invest the money you would be using to pay off the mortgage, it’s likely that saving/investing is the better option. But if you’re more the “average” person out there managing your money, I still believe it’s a better option to pre-pay your mortgage.”

The Rowley article offers some interesting background to this debate:

Why do so many people choose to put extra money into a mortgage when other options would likely increase their wealth? “This is really remnant of Depression mentality that has persisted from generation to generation,” says [one expert]. At the time, most mortgages had one- to five-year terms, with a lump sum payment due at the end.

“Any shock to income meant you couldn’t afford your payment — mortgages were much more susceptible to economic uncertainty,” [the expert says], and roughly one-quarter of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression. “It’s fine to pay down your mortgage if it gives you peace of mind, but you should recognize what that peace of mind costs.”

If you’re facing a similar decision, you may find this calculator useful: prepaying your mortgage vs. investing.

The bottom line
My conclusion in 2007 (and the one I still hold today) is that unless your mortgage rate is very high, it makes more sense mathematically to invest your money. But most gurus agree that psychologically, you should do what works for you. If paying off your mortgage would take a weight off your shoulders, then pay off your mortgage. Sure, you might be losing a bit in the long-term, but you’re still making a smart choice. As I said earlier, it’s like choosing between an apple and an orange. One may be better for you, but they’re both good.

Ultimately, I kind of like the choice that Kelley and her husband have made. They’re prepaying their mortgage and putting some toward retirement. But enough of what I think. Kelley really wants to know what you think.

Which option is better? Should she and her husband be pumping as much as possible into their Roth IRAs? Or should they be paying down their mortgage as quickly as they can? Have you been faced with a similar dilemma in the past? What did you choose to do? And would you make the same choice again?