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How your mortgrage can set you free of other debt

General Angela Calla 12 Jan

How your mortgage can set you free of other debt 

 Credit crunch, debt crisis — call it what you will, but the current economic climate is spurring people to get their own finances in order. For Jack and Sarah Stewart, of Toronto, this means tackling the $40,000 in debt they’ve allowed to balloon during the past eight years. With their mortgage coming up for renewal, they’re thinking of clearing the slate and rolling the burden into their mortgage.

“We want to consolidate our debt, but we’re not sure if increasing our mortgage is the best way to do it,” says Jack, who asked that his and his wife’s names be changed to protect their privacy.

He’s not alone. Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, says it’s a question people grapple with all the time. “Homes in the past have been your sacred cow,” she says, referring to the drive to pay down one’s mortgage as quickly as possible.

These days, however, with people juggling debts and paying varying rates of interest, increasing one’s mortgage can be a smart move, even if it takes longer to pay off.

Lowering interest rates

It’s a common theme as homeowners strive to bring down the overall interest they pay, as well as reduce their monthly obligations. He prefers to think of it as repositioning one’s debt, and in his experience, “in almost all cases, it’s justified.”

“If you have debt that is sitting at 18 percent interest, then it certainly makes sense,” says Campbell, adding that it’s something to consider only if you have enough equity in your home and if your mortgage is coming up for renewal (read the fine print to find out if the penalties for breaking a mortgage outweigh the possible benefits).

If you’re working with the same lender, there’s often no penalty involved with increasing your mortgage before the term expires.

The Stewarts seem like prime candidates. They have a $200,000 mortgage on a house worth about $425,000. They have plenty of equity, they’re up for renewal at the end of the year and they say they’re serious about getting their finances in order. Ideally, they’d roll the debt into their mortgage, continue an accelerated payment program whereby they pay every two weeks and they would not increase their amortization period, but instead increase their payments.

Dealing with debt

It’s a good plan, says Campbell, who thinks all mortgage holders should accelerate their payments. She also likes the idea that they plan to stick to a 17-year amortization instead of renegotiating another 25-year mortgage. However, she stresses that none of this amounts to much if the Stewarts are going to continue the same spending habits and find themselves in a similar position five years from now. “They have to understand what got them into this $40,000 debt in the first place. They have to make sure they don’t fall victim to that again.”

She recommends cutting up credit cards, especially store cards, which have higher rates of interest, and not using one’s line of credit like a bank account.

The Stewarts say the bulk of their debt was incurred for renovation costs, including a new kitchen and installing hardwood flooring, but admit their spending habits need a makeover. “We’re always dipping in to our line of credit because we’re strapped for cash,” says Sarah Stewart. “I think if we consolidate the debt, it’ll increase our cash flow and we’ll be able to live within our means.”

Jeanette Brox, a Certified Financial Planner with Investors Group in North York, Ont., always encourages her clients to look at the big picture when it comes to financial health: “My job is to make them think outside the box.” She says helping people manage debt, while securing their future, is essential. “People need to think beyond what our parents did, which was paying down the mortgage,” she says. “I used to think that way too, but I don’t anymore.”

In her view, the Stewarts and others like them need to take an aggressive approach if they ever want to get ahead. Not only do they need to improve cash flow, but they also need an emergency fund for unforeseen expenses, not to mention a retirement plan.

Planning for the future

Brox admits a lot of people would balk at the idea, but she thinks the Stewarts, both in their early 30s, should not only roll their debt into the mortgage, but increase their mortgage an additional $35,000 for a total of $275,000. To make payments more manageable, she’d also recommend increasing the amortization period to 25 years. She would invest $25,000 in mutual funds and further $10,000 in a money market account (earning about two percent interest).

“This is what I call a lifestyle fund,” says Brox, adding that part of the interest cost on the mortgage would be tax deductible. “It’s a win-win situation, but you’ve got to be really disciplined.”

That means using their increased tax return to pay down the principal on the mortgage, thereby helping compensate for the interest cost of carrying the additional $35,000. The other bonus is that within five years (or so), the $25,000 registered retirement savings plan, or RRSP, will have grown to about $40,000. She stresses this is a long-term plan and people have to realize that the market is going to rise and fall.

“It’s all based on comfort level,” says Brox, adding that the biggest mistake she sees with people who reposition debt is that they don’t have a long-term plan and, as Campbell, pointed out, go back to old spending habits. “People need to have their whole financial picture analyzed. It’s something to consider, but you need to work with mortgage expert that will put together a plan for you.”

Lines of credit

There’s a whole school of thinkers that shudder at the thought of increasing one’s mortgage. At the core of this is that you’re trading unsecured debt for secured debt and paying interest on that debt for the entire life of your mortgage, which can dramatically increase the cost of borrowing. In addition, refinancing also involves added legal costs (in most cases a minimum of $500). An alternative is consolidating debt onto a line of credit or home equity loan, which have higher interest rates than a mortgage, but can be paid off more quickly.

This works in theory, say our experts, but rarely in real life. “A lot of people just make the minimum payment and never get it cleaned up,” says Brox.

“I’m wary of open lines of credit because they can easily stay at $50,000 forever,” says Campbell, adding that an increased mortgage payment forces people to be more disciplined in paying down debt.

As for paying the debt for the entire length of your mortgage, all the experts stress that the way to combat this is by channelling extra funds back into the mortgage and paying off the mortgage early. This could mean accelerated payments, using tax returns or bumping up the payments. “We’re putting all the money back into the principal of the mortgage,” says Majthenyi, who points out that an extra $10,000 on a mortgage costs about $50 a month, while a $10,000 loan requires minimum payments of $300.

In the Stewart’s case, it’s costing them about $1,000 a month to cover $40,000 debt. If it’s part of their mortgage, it translates into about $200. Ideally they’d direct the bulk of that money back into their mortgage through an annual lump payment or by increasing individual payments by a few hundred dollars.

Repositioning debt into one’s mortgage is a sound option for people who are committed to changing bad habits and/or taking a long-term approach to getting their finances in order.

When it comes to money, Brox says that people need a big-picture plan, not a band-aid solution: “A lot of times it’s not what you make but how you manage it.”

For more information on this tune into The Mortgage Show, on 980 AM CKNW saturdays at 7pm with Angela Calla, AMP of the year