Call it a revelation, a crisis, a turning point — or all three — but while writing her latest book, The Smart Women’s Guide to Retirement, Mary Hunt realized she had to make a life-changing decision.
Years before, she dug out of more than $100,000 in debt without declaring bankruptcy. Now she found herself facing a hurdle that appeared almost as daunting: taking her own retirement planning advice and selling her dream home. For the first time, Mary shares the details of this difficult but life-alerting decision.
Mary, you’ve written numerous books about debt and personal finance over the years. Why was this one different?
Writing the book was painful because I kept being personally convicted by the things I was so strongly suggesting for my readers. I knew what I was writing was wise. However, I can’t say I love when it happens that my own words turn around to bite me. But that’s exactly what happened. I was so conflicted by the things I knew to be true but was not sure I could measure up to personally.
One of the strategies that I so believe in is this thing of homeownership. One of the six strategies in this book is to own a home outright before you retire — no mortgage. Wow. That one just zinged me between the eyes because I knew in my heart that Harold and I would never be able to pay off our current mortgage in our lifetimes. We live in California and while homes are highly-priced, mortgages are in direct proportion: jumbo-sized. That strategy just kept ringing in my head, haunting me and screaming at me like an angry, disapproving parent! I came this close to nixing that strategy from the book altogether. But I didn’t. And I am so grateful.
This is where it gets really interesting. What did you do instead?
Right in the middle of writing this book, we did the unthinkable. We listed our home for sale.
We’ve “owned” it (and I do use that term loosely because we always had a mortgage) for 27 years! We raised our kids there, lived our lives there, put down roots that were strong and deep. And you’d think we would be 3 years from paying it off, right? Wrong! We also refinanced numerous times, and against my own better judgement, only months prior we’d reset the payoff clock back to 30 years!
In addition, the paint was not fully dry from a huge remodel we’d just completed. It was gorgeous. Everything we’d dreamed of. Finally it was the way we wanted it and the way we’d planned to live there forever.
Did you really want to move or were you just going through the motions?
I struggle with change, so the idea of moving was unsettling. But the prospect of being able to own a home outright was so satisfying it outweighed whatever process it might require to get there. We listed the house really high — much higher than any home had ever sold for in our ZIP code — believing it would take a year or longer to sell. We boosted the price in an effort to give us enough net equity to buy something all cash, so we could really go into retirement debt-free. I don’t know of any retirement plan that can justify a big monthly mortgage payment, or even monthly rent.
The first people to come through the open house made an offer … for $100 more than our asking price! That’s how badly they wanted it. We closed the deal 45 days later and walked away with nearly a half million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t buy much in Southern California.
You must have been half in shock! What did you do next?
We moved into a tiny apartment that is … well, cozy. Our possessions are in long-term storage. We decided that the only wise thing to do would be to plan a major relocation to an area where we could realistically buy a home outright with the cash, and afford to live there for many years to come on a retirement income.
We did it. We bought a beautiful home in Erie, Colorado, (between Boulder and Denver … perfectly located). It’s 10 years old, on the 15th tee of a gorgeous golf course. Talk about a dream home! And we own it outright. There’s only one problem: We are not ready to relocate yet. We have two businesses here in California so we need time to transition.
So what did you do?
We leased out the Erie house for one year. That rental income will more than pay for our relocation costs and help furnish that lovely home, as well. And the apartment living is not so bad. In fact we are quite enjoying it!
Our plan is to move to Colorado in April 2015.
Are you completely thrilled with your decision?
Is this all perfect? No. It will be a big adjustment for us and our family. One of our sons and family will be making the move with us and we are thrilled about that. Our other son and family will remain in California, a 1 hour 50 min flight away. We will commute often to see them, but also because one of our businesses will remain in California. And it’s pretty nice in the winter!
How can we do this? Because we are debt-free. Totally, 100% debt-free. We have no idea when we will truly retire, but we have options that we’ve never had before.
Do you have regrets?
No, and that’s because I won’t allow myself to go there. We’re committed to our belief that attitude is what matters. We can either mourn leaving California and the life we’ve had here or choose joy for all we have. We have decided to see this move as a wonderful thing, a way that we can make a better life for ourselves and our family. After all, the best gift we can give our kids is to not become a burden to them in our old age. Owning our home outright (together with the other five strategies in the book) has given us peace of mind and a bright future!
It sounds like your book “The Smart Woman’s Guide to Planning for Retirement” changed your life. Thanks for sharing your story, Mary!
You can learn more about the retirement strategies Mary Hunt shares in her new book in this interview (also available on iTunes here) and you can learn more about her book on her website, Debt-Proof Living.
[Editor's note: Getting out of debt can benefit you in retirement by lowering your expenses, and it may also help your credit score. You can check your credit scores for free through Credit.com, as well as see how paying off your debt can affect your scores over time.]
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Image: Andy Dean