That’s the principal balance on my mortgage. The number of my future dollars that don’t belong to me. The real number is higher, because of interest, but this is the number that I watch. Watch it go down twelve times a year. Watch my freedom come closer.
I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but have hesitated. Would it seem braggy? Would it seem haughty, that I’m in a position to pay down my mortgage at a pretty fast clip, while others are struggling to buy food? Would it make me appear unrelatable? I hope not. Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to say that it’s not my intention to brag. I’m very aware of how blessed I am to be in the financial position that I’m in, especially at my age. I’m very aware that others around me are far from my position. I’m very aware that personal finance is still a taboo subject. But this is my space, and if you are to ever get an accurate picture of who I am, I have to talk about this. My debt paydown is a big part of my life, and the reasons I’m paying it down are a big part of who I am. So please know that while I am proud of what I’m doing and where I am in my life, I’m also aware that my deck was stacked. I’m white, I’m single, I grew up in a middle class family with parents who both had stable jobs, a mother who was college educated, and where finance was talked about early. Not everyone has the foundation that I do, and I get that.
To lay the groundwork, I’ve always been a saver and debt averse. I’m naturally cautious with money. I was both blessed and worked hard to get out of college debt free. I chose to go to a local college so I could continue to live at home. I got a scholarship that paid half my tuition and fees for four years. I worked 20-30 hours per week at Office Depot to help my parents pay for the other half. I took on a bigger class workload than most people in my department so that I could graduate in four years instead of five. I won a $1500 scholarship my senior year of high school that I put in a special savings account and earmarked for my books (which I rented online and returned at the end of every semester to save money. The $1500 lasted me until my last semester). I have seen the effect of student loans on my peers, even now, almost a decade (!!) after college has ended. It is devastating, and I am so incredibly glad that I avoided it. I won’t say lucky- I hate that word. I was blessed, certainly, but I also worked my ass off to get those scholarships and made the most of my money. Lucky implies that it fell in my lap, and it didn’t.
After graduation, I found a job pretty quickly and knew my goal was to buy a house. Within two years, I had. I had bought my first car in 2011, and the loan was paid off by 2013, a few months after I moved in. I had a $6,000 loan for a privacy fence that I paid off in less than a year. The only debt that I have is my mortgage, and I hate it. I hate monthly payments. I hate knowing that half my paycheck never belongs to me. I hate knowing that if something really serious comes up- illness, job loss, etc- I still have to find a way to pay back the bank for a house that I don’t truly own. I hate knowing that if I can’t pay, the bank will take my house back. My home, my space, the only place where I feel truly me. It’s terrifying.
But for years, I didn’t think I could do anything about it. Mortgages are “good debt,” right? It’s fine. Everyone has a mortgage. The chances of me losing my job were low, I had six months of expenses in the bank just in case, and I knew I could cut my bills pretty far back if I had to. I’d be fine. But it was always there, looming over me. I thought it would feel good to be a homeowner, but I realized I didn’t even own my home. I was essentially just renting it from the bank.
Traditional wisdom has it that if you can make more money in the stock market than you will save paying down your mortgage, you should invest. Average stock market returns are 7%. My mortgage interest is 4.25%. So I invested. It was the smart move. But when I ran the numbers, I was still not as close to my early retirement goal as I wanted to be. I knew why- I’m single. I’m a single-income household, and unless I seriously increased my income (which would require skills far beyond what I have), I wasn’t going to be able to retire at 35, or 40, or 45. Maybe 50. More like 55 or 60. I felt like all this work was barely moving the needle at all. Maybe I should just give it up and go back to living like everyone else lives. Damn this minimalism, damn this financial freedom crap, maybe I should just settle in for the long run.
But here’s the thing about me. I’m an optimist. I have moments, hours, days, sometimes weeks of doom and gloom, but I always come out of it. A friend in high school told me that if there was a Senior Superlative for “Most Determined,” I’d get it. I didn’t realize that she was right. I waved it off, thinking she was being flattering, but looking back, I know she saw something that I didn’t. If I want something, I will achieve it. And what I want to achieve now is an end to this unfulfilling, working to live, office job hamster wheel. I want to create a life where I have the time and space to try new things, improve myself, foster my relationships, and be happy. And I don’t want to wait until I’m 65 to do it.
So what are my options? I can go back to school, spend a ton of money and go into debt to get the skills to land a higher paying job. That doesn’t seem smart. I can get on the side-hustle train, but I don’t want to spend my free time hustling, that sounds like a recipe for a breakdown. That leaves me with one option: I can bite the bullet, go against the traditional financial advice, and pay off my mortgage.
I’ve thrown myself into it with everything I have. I stopped my automatic investments into my stock fund (I left my IRA alone, I still max that out). I listen to Dave Ramsey podcasts to pump me up. I printed out a “debt thermometer” to track my progress. It sits on my bookcase, in full view of my daily activities, to remind me what I’m working towards. I have tried to ease up on my minimalism a bit (see this post) for my mental health, but I still don’t buy extraneous crap. My typical weekly purchases are groceries, gas, and whatever bill comes in the mail. I treat myself to something I want once or twice a month, but honestly there’s not much that I want these days, except an end to mortgage statements. Of course household needs come up, which annoys me, but is what it is. But mostly, I keep it simple.
The various amortization tools online tell me I should be paid off around December 2024. I’m trying hard to not think too much about that date, because things happen. If I end up needing surgery on my arm, a decent chunk of it will have to come out of my pocket. And who knows what will happen in the next few years. Maybe I’ll get a mysterious windfall, maybe I’ll write a bestseller. Maybe I’ll fall gravely ill and have tons of medical bills, or maybe I’ll feel compelled to help support a family member or friend. Who knows. But if all continues as planned, I hope to be mortgage free in about five years.
I don’t know what I’ll do then. I only know that paying off my mortgage is the fastest way for me to get options. I think most likely I’ll continue to work my full time job until I have a decent amount of padding in the bank. Then maybe I’ll quit and work part time, or just work in the summer. I can see myself working in a plant nursery in the summer. I do love plants. Regardless of what I choose to do, the important thing is that I’ll have the option to choose it. Dave Ramsey says that debt steals your options, and he’s right. As long as your paycheck is earmarked for car loans, student loans, mortgages, and whatever else you have to pay off, that money can never go toward creating your dream life.
And I want my dream life.
Overflowing with love,
EDIT: I thought that I should say that I have a very normal job. I have been smart with my finances, but I am not wealthy by any means. I make a normal middle-class salary, and I have a normal middle-class lifestyle, with the exception of the whole minimalism thing. That’s really the linchpin in all of this, because the majority of my paycheck goes toward what I want it to rather than toward all these things I think I “should“ buy.