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Should you pay off that mortgage before retirement?

Conventional wisdom holds that retirees should not enter their golden years still holding a mortgage. However, Diahann Lassus, president and chief investment officer of wealth-management firm Lassus Wherley, claims "that's not a one-size-fits-all answer today, because there are many other factors you have to think about."

Thanks to today's low interest rates and reasonable long-term returns from investments, it may make more sense for retirees to carry a mortgage for a longer than usual period, she noted. Trouble is, many people are "obsessed" with paying their mortgage off. Either way, there are two parts to any such decision: the math and the emotion.

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Suburban house at dusk
Lisa J. Goodman | Getty Images

If you're considering paying off a mortgage "because it's really bothering you that it's hanging over your head, you really want to start thinking about a longer time frame than tomorrow," said Lassus. She recommends thinking 10 or even 15 years out but still making extra payments each year. However, don't take money out of 401(k) plans and the like to help pay down your mortgage, she cautioned, "because it will benefit you more for the long term to build those retirement accounts."

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Conversely, carrying a mortgage into retirement offers a lot of financial positives — especially if you have a very low interest rate. "What you can do is invest those dollars [and] your earnings could be significantly higher, which means you're using someone else's money to earn more so that you're able to build your retirement assets over time," said Lassus. "And that tax deduction makes it even more cost-effective."

In the end, act only after you've looked at the math in terms of investment returns vs. mortgage costs, she said. "But you also have to be able to sleep at night."

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