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Mountains of debt cannot be repaid just by packing lunches and cutting cable. Those are comforting bedtime stories we tell ourselves about capitalism.

The Real Story of How I Paid Off My Mortgage in 4 Years

As of fifteen minutes (and one very cold beer) ago, I officially own the beautiful house I’m sitting in right now.

My partner and I have been refreshing our mortgage account every few hours today, waiting for the final payment to process. (Weirdly, you have to WIRE the final payment. Seriously? After this years-long relationship of sending personal check after personal check, our mortgage lender refuses to trust us at the finish line? Fine, whatever…) Just before the close of the day, it happened.

Current principal balance: $0.00.

$0.00.

My mortgage is gone. I am done paying rent. If all things go according to plan, I will never ever pay rent again for as long as I live. Let’s talk about it!

How it feels

Tanja Hester wrote an excellent article noting that the metaphorical language employed in the personal finance community is often, uh, insulting! We agree with her conclusion that language around “freedom” can be an ookie term considering the history of the literal, actual, non-metaphorical enslavement of human beings in our country’s history.

Still, I struggle to find a word to summarize my feelings that isn’t “free.”

I feel unburdened, unattached, beholden to no one but my own self. I feel clever and successful and proud to be “a woman of my word.” Is this the feeling of… dignity? Yes, holy crap, I feel dignified! Being truly debt-free for the first time since childhood is empowering and thrilling and new and scary.

It also feels utterly gross and wrong to have such good news during such an awful time. It’s only at Piggy’s urging that I write about it at all.

Having good news in 2020 feels like finding out you’ve won the lottery while you’re attending a funeral. You wanna leap in the air and click your heels like you just successfully defended your Lucky Charms from hungry children. Yet at the exact same time, you want to sink to the floor and weep because you’re just so fucking bereft.

At time of writing, half the U. S. population is without jobs. A stomach-churning number of families across the country are facing foreclosure, eviction, and potential homelessness. Given that, sitting the fuck down and shutting the fuck up seems like the best option I have for a personal celebration.

But alas, this is a site about money. We’ve always been open with you guys about our successes and our set-backs. I’m sure it will come up often enough that I’ll be asked to explain “how I did it.” Which is my least favorite question.

Beware the “here’s how I did it” narrative

Personal finance is full of headlines following this format:

Here’s How [Relatively Young Person] Paid off [Relatively Normal Debts] in [Relatively Short Timeframe]

Some are legitimately interesting or useful articles… but not many. Most are shortsighted and self-congratulatory wank sessions for aspiring upper-middle-class “finance gurus.” Far from offering helpful advice, their authors loudly announce their own obliviousness by attributing their lightning fast six-figure debt repayment to their bold decision to cut cable, lmao.

These “…and you can too!” articles tend to focus on the same few points:

  • Setting goals
  • Cutting expenses
  • Working real, real hard
  • Contemplating how tough it is to resist going out for expensive cocktails with “the squad”
  • Being super evasive about their income

Ugh. Honestly, gag me.

Sure, these points are each individually useful and valid; we’ve talked about them plenty. But taken together, they play into a tired narrative about wealth accumulation: that it’s the natural outcome of self-discipline, asceticism, and hard work. There’s nothing complicated about the narrative, which is why we see it so often.

It’s a bedtime story we tell ourselves about capitalism.

Here are some real tips no one wants to publish

Wanna hear how this thirty-three-year-old paid off a $300,000 mortgage in four years? Fine, I’ll tell ya! It all comes down to…

Let’s see… have I left anything out?

Oh! There is one more helpful tip to repaying a $300,000 mortgage in four years, which is: earning at least $300,000 in four years!

It’s an ugly bit of common sense that you cannot repay a mountain of debt without making a mountain of money.

Aren’t there any ACTUAL tips?

It really frustrates me when people don’t acknowledge the help they’ve been given. But I get it.

I really, really wish my success story had a cooler plot than “DINK with rich husband bought less house than she could afford.” It grates my fucking nerves to put it that way, even though it’s completely true.

Of course there was also goal-setting and sacrifice and long hours; I won’t completely sidestep the element of my own self-determination. We werked! But it’s important to me that our readers understand that they can set goals and sacrifice and work a backbreaking number of hours every day and still wake up in debt. Just because it worked for one person doesn’t mean it’s an attainable reality for everyone.

That said, if you’re trying to pay off a debt early, I do have a few tips that are slightly less bitter and more actionable. Whether they’re student loans, credit cards, or a mortgage, here’s what’s helped me the most.

Learn to spot potential financial exploitation

We bought our home for $300,000, which is well below the average home price in our migraine-inducingly expensive area of the country. Both our mortgage lender and our realtor pushed us to get a larger loan so we could look at more expensive houses.

I did not fall for this trap.

In the process of eliminating my student loans, I’d come to realize how “taken for a ride” I felt by the whole process. Parties who didn’t have my best interests at heart urged me towards a very expensive school, and offered me loans whose terms I didn’t fully understand. Not knowing who would want to exploit me, or how they would do it, I was unable to be my own advocate and make more defensive choices when I was younger.

Not so now! When shopping for houses, I knew I couldn’t pay off a mortgage early if I was struggling just to keep up with normal minimum payments. And I knew that my lenders’ and realtor’s pay scaled with the purchase price of the home. It was in their best interest to get me to spend as much money as possible.

Learning to spot good deals and bad deals is a huge part of gaining financial competence. Along the same lines, don’t beat yourself up if you make financial mistakes. You may learn unpleasant lessons—but they’ll be priceless.

Put more energy into growing income than cutting expenses

My original goal for getting my house paid off was ten years. I managed to do it in four mostly because my partner changed his career, which grew his salary eight times over in the the span of about a year.

This highly unexpected eightfold raise was so helpful we paid itself to itself and hired it to be its own butler.

Your ability to save money is limited. You can’t frugal your way out of the necessities of human life: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc. Nobody in America is out there living some kind of Aladdin lifestyle, dead broke like woah but still “finding” enough tasty bread to live and sleeping rent-free on a gorgeous, scenic rooftop garden.

Your income, however, is theoretically unlimited. And considering we live in such a naked plutocracy, I don’t know why I bother to say “theoretical”!

This isn’t to say that saving money and budgeting aren’t useful skills. You’ll need them once you have money to manage. But until you have money to manage, it’s not what I would recommend focusing on.

Get your career right. Seek raises and promotions. Consider other income streams, but don’t glamorize side hustles. (As we’ve said before, it’s much better to max out growth potential in your day job. People should not assume the pressure of a second job because their company is too morally bankrupt to pay them a living wage.) Try to join unions, or organize new ones in your workplace to protect everyone’s dignity and quality of life. Because we would all be better off if we lived in a society that made it easy to live within our means.

Ignore the naysayers

I have had more one-hundred-follower finance bros (who always seem to pick a name that abbreviates to three Ms, the cheek) give me unsolicited advice on this topic than any other we’ve covered on the site.

Advice is too kind a word. It’s unsolicited scolding.

Any time I mentioned I was working hard to get my mortgage paid off, at least two would appear to tut-tut at my foolishness. “Don’t you know that you can get an 8% return in the market? It would be MUCH SMARTER to invest that extra money in the market instead!”

First of all, no, I don’t think 8% is a good benchmark of stock market performance.

Second of all, WHO ARE YOU, AND HOW QUICKLY MAY YOU FUCK OFF?

There are a lot of people who confidently proclaim themselves experts, only to fade like morning mist once circumstances prove them wrong. All those market enthusiasts have been silent during the current crisis. The consistency of this “advice” could’ve made me question what I was doing. Luckily, I’d thought deeply about this goal, and considered all options before committing. So I never gave them a second thought.

Don’t let the goal consume you

Obviously, Piggy and I are cheap queens at heart. When we were trying to eliminate our student loan debts in our very frugal 20s, we said “no thanks” to a lot of very tasty-looking adult beverages.

But we weren’t joyless either!

For example, I took one summer off to do meaningful work on a good friend’s nonprofit. It was meaningful and incredibly fun, and allowed me to travel and spend lots of time with people I loved. It paid dog shit; I could’ve made much more money doing almost anything else. But I knew I’d never have another chance, so I took it.

And it was the right call! I rely every day on the skills and relationships I built during that summer.

The average person changes jobs more than ten times throughout their lives, and reaches their peak earning potential between the ages of forty and sixty. You have your whole life to go out and make money. Don’t pass up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities so you can take a few more $15/hour shifts at a job you hate just for the sake of your debts.

… And that’s really it. Hopefully y’all find this more honest take on a “how I did it” story valuable. As always, one of the things I love most about my home is that it gives me the ability to extend stability to others who need it. We’ve already acquired our first coronavirus refugee… I wonder how many more we’ll have before all this is done?

I’d be thrilled if you lifted a glass of whatever you’re drinking to my good fortune; otherwise, that’s all I really plan to say on the topic for now! I wish you all goals based in active desire rather than reactive panic. Be kind, and don’t hold yourself to impossibly high standards.

25 thoughts to “The Real Story of How I Paid Off My Mortgage in 4 Years”

  1. Having just built a (way too expensive) home which is going to last me until I die (one floor! accessible door handles!) (or until they haul me into assisted living for streaking naked), this article left me encouraged, discouraged, and most importantly, craving marshmallows. Congratulations! I hope to join you before another decade passes. But I promise to not go crazy trying. Now to order some ‘mallows.

  2. Congrats! I paid off my mortgage 2 years ago. I also had to wire the final payment. I’m much older than you and took 15 years to get it paid off but also had to deal with many people telling me I was nuts to do this. It helps me sleep at night. ‘Nuff said.

  3. As someone who is in the process of buying her first home, thank you for posting! Your joy and success makes me happy for you, and it gives me hope that, someday (probably much older than you are now), I’ll be able to pay off my own mortgage. Lifting a virtual glass to you and your home! <3

  4. Congratulations! Thank you for sharing. I’m looking at daylight with my mortgage and refuse to quit on my goal of paying it off. It’s taken me way longer than 4 years but I am encouraged, nevertheless.

  5. This is wonderful! A heartfelt congratulations on this mega-accomplishment, even though it is weird to feel proud and happy right now. I really appreciate the honest take on ways you perhaps had a leg up/ that not everyone will be able to do it. Cheers!

  6. I AM SO GLAD YOU POSTED THIS. Yeah, celebrating a “win” in 2020 can feel like rubbing everyone else’s nose in the dirt, BUT you acknowledge this upfront AND you acknowledge that some privilege was involved and it wasn’t due to the Lie of Rugged Individual Capitalism, so no guilt trip to the rest of us. Paying off a mortgage is HUGE and you totally deserve props and a big fat CONGRATULATIONS! My bottle of water to stay hydrated is raised in your direction.

    I love how you broke your story down into parts: (1) The Lie of Rugged Individual Capitalism was just that, a lie, and it wasn’t how you did it; (2) the outliers you had that worked in your favor; (3) the steps anyone can take, even if they lack a single one of your outliers, that will help (not do it completely, but help). I would only add, things take time, setbacks happen, some if not most setbacks are outside of your control, and everything’s a learning experience. And definitely don’t listen to the 3M finance bros, who like T-rump can only really play to their base while FIREsplaining to the rest of us. Another reason why I love y’all bitches.

    Stay cool in that new-to-you house!

  7. CONGRATULATIONS, KITTY!!!

    It’s so heart-warming to get good news about great people at this time of nonsense. I’m so, so happy for you and your home, and for your partner’s epic promotion that helped to make it possible. I bet he’s really proud of being able to contribute to your life together like that!

    Your news, and your extremely real take on how you accomplished this feat of financial wizardry, are very heartening to me, since I am planning to buy my own first house next year, and I’m in the process of learning what I’m getting into. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m raising a cup of morning tea to you. ☕❤️

  8. Congratulations to you! Loved reading your story and I truly appreciate that you acknowledge the privileges that helped you! I live in the Bay Area, so not sure that I can even plan to pay off my mortgage — it seems selling with incredible gains makes more financial sense. But, I so wish I could keep the house and be financially independent. Kudos to you! be proud, and celebrate!

    1. So funny you said this Hae, as my husband and I just closed on selling our house in the Bay Area today! It would have taken us 10 years+ to pay off the mortgage, and we chose to sell it instead to reach our goal of financial independence. The Bay Area is definitely a strange, expensive place to be!

  9. You are allowed to celebrate! Honestly it cheers me up to see people are doing well during all this. Congrats on stepping off the hamster wheel.

    1. Congratulations! That is amazing.
      We bought just before the pandemic hit – so probably at the peak of the our local market. *sigh*
      We are still employed and bought well within our means and have an emergency fund etc etc but despite this I’ve been struggling with having so much debt hanging over my head – my student debt didn’t bother me in the same way – I just slowly chipped away at it – but I think about the mortgage all the time. (Not particularly productively I might add – it hasn’t triggered sudden uber frugality, just worry)
      Thanks for your perspective on the house vs investing question – my partner isn’t super financially savvy and doesn’t see any value in doing anything other than paying down the debt so it’s good to know that is also a BGR supported approach.
      I’ve been meaning to ask – i can’t commit to smaller regular payments but would like to make a one-off contribution – does Patreon provide a way of doing that?

  10. CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! This is awesome! 4 years is unheard of. So much to be proud of!!! I am working on refinancing from a 30 to a 15 year loan as I type this! I am also paying student loans for myself (graduated in 2018 at 50) and my daughter (graduated in 2019 at 22). I have a steep road ahead of me but I have a plan and I am making good progress! I wish I could go back to my 20’s and do a LOT of things financially different. Anyways, so happy for you and your family! Now, if you can just send some good money mojo my way….. 🙂

  11. CONGRATS!!!

    And yes, even though there are lots of terrible things happening right now – you absolutely deserve to celebrate your success!

    My story is similarly unmagical – single woman, no kids, buys cheapest house she can find (in California, so that’s not very cheap), puts the biggest down payment she can muster, and spends the next 10 years paying extra every month so that her 30 year mortgage is cut down to 10 years.

    No secret tips – I picked a career that pays pretty well (and that I enjoy, thankfully), I still went on vacation occasionally and I just threw money at the mortgage – in addition to paying extra every month, I threw all my tax refunds (which I got because of the mortgage interest deduction) at the principal every year too.

    SO CLOSE – I have 4 payments left!

  12. Hurrah!!! This is amazing and inspiring and it helps so much that it’s also very realistic. It’s probably revealing too much but it would be interesting to know what % of your 4 years of income the mortgage + interest represented. Did you spend half of your joint net income paying it off? 75%? etc.

    I got an unexpected raise today and feel .. .whoa, so surprised. And also like I don’t want to advertise it/celebrate it because of all the things happening out there. But it also makes me think I’m that much closer to paying off my own mortgage!

    By the way, at some point I ran the numbers of prepaying vs investing and IIRC it was a difference of just maybe 20k or 30k or something over ~10 years and I would FAR rather have my mortgage evaporated (since other savings are in good shape), so that’s my chosen path.

    Congratulations!

  13. I get what you mean about feeling icky about sharing because there’s definitely personal news I still haven’t shared in my offline life and hesitate to share given the state of the world because everything feels wrong but also SUPER DOUBLE BONUS CONGRATULATIONS I am so happy for you and for you to have good news. Someone somewhere should have some, darn it!!

    Cheers!

  14. Congrats! I too have a paid off mortgage, although definitely not as fast as you did it. I bought my little fixer upper in 2003, nicely below mkt value and definitely well below what I could get approved for. (mom kept encouraging me to buy as much house as I could because they always appreciate, I did not!). I originally did a 5/15/80 finance, then refinanced to a 15 yr the next year. Paid off a few years ago, and still “fixing it up”. I could have paid it off earlier, but back then FIRE was not so widespread ( I had never herd of it). Plus, I wanted a horse, sooooo having an inexpensive house was part of my plan. I still have Mr Horse and don’t regret it at all, the memories of all the life lessons learned and adventures taken will be worth far more to me in the old folks home than any huge hulking house ever would have been. Currently paying down some other debt related to having Mr Horse and the fixer upper house, annoying but it will get done. Having the inexpensive house also enabled me to keep up a good amount of retirement saving throughout, so while I don’t plan to early retire I should have enough meet my needs and then some provided the stock market doesn’t collapse to the center of the earth never to return. Enjoy your new freedom from worry!

  15. We sold our first home, which we bought during the cheap times of 2010 in the midwest no less, last year. Our new home was twice as much mortgage (and I’m still not sure it was the right choice). I put a little extra towards the principal every month, but only about enough to equal one extra payment a year. Technically we could put more (a lot more) towards it, but my particular weirdo brain shape prioritizes having an extremely large emergency fund in our savings account instead.

  16. I firmly believe in the value of a paid off mortgage. My parents did it and were able to retire before 60 because of it. Finance bros are exhausting with that bad investment talk. Even MMM has a paid off mortgage. How can the place you live be a bad investment? How can saving money on the interest payments be a bad idea? Anyway, way to go! I hope to join the club one day.

  17. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! Not having house debt is AWESOME. The advice against trusting realtors and mortgage lenders is so true. Our realtor totally drank the Kool Aid herself and was planning to finance her kids’ college with flipping houses. More power to her, but we quite happily never told her even how much we could really have been approved for (we asked the bank for less than they would have given) and refused to pony up in bidding wars when we didn’t think a place was worth it, twice. We bought a place $100K less than we could have afforded (hellooooo, HCOL locale) and then our incomes actually did grow (which we did not COUNT ON). We were able to refi to a 15 yr mortgage and got ours taken care of just over a year ago, and just shy of 10 years since purchase. SUCH A WEIGHT OFF. We considered paying off the mortgage akin to buying a bond and part of a nice rationally balanced strategy. Guaranteed return.

  18. Raising a bowl of toasted cheese cracker squares to you!

    Thank you for your continued realness. I’ve seen those articles you mentioned for years now and have furrowed my brows without exactly knowing how to articulate what was so frustrating— Now I know. So thank you.

    After 3 years of furiously running in the hamster wheel trying to get my consumer debts down by doing all the popular “advice,” (cut out expenses, sell all my shit, pick up side hustles, teach others how to side hustle…) I finally talked with my financial advisor, who talked to my tax guy, and they urged me to take advantage of the CARES Act benefit by taking $9k out of my conservatively-performing IRA to bring my CC balance (killing me at 19%) to zero. I have 3 years to replace the original contribution amount to avoid taxes/penalties, which we set a plan for once our double-laid-off household (thanks, Rona) gets back on our feet. There’s still $14k in student loans to tackle, but at 3% those aren’t creating the same overwhelming burden that the plastic cards were. Very inspired by your post in all the best ways. Cheers!

  19. ahhhhhh thank u for this hilarious, yet true as shit post!
    I too am tired of the bro (& mostly white) advice of so much of the FI movement! Paying off ur house is incredible! we still have a mortgage but no other debt & our mortgage is insanely low, so i cant decide if i really care about paying it off, except im also a cheap bitch & hate paying interest…
    but yea thanks for the article & realness!

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