Mortgage Accelerator Programs?

Question: My husband & I are both retired. We have parent loans for our 3 children's college expenses. We have a $20,000 home equity loan but no other debt. Recently we were approached by a friend to look into u1stfinancial as a way of paying them off sooner and decreasing interest. Do you have any information or advice regarding this company? Carol, Pine City, NY

Answer: We've been getting a lot of questions about United First Financial and its Money Merge Account. Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of the product.

Here's how the company describes the money merge account on its website.

The Money Merge Account system is a powerful tool that enables homeowners to pay off a 30-year mortgage in as little as one-third of the time, without refinancing their existing mortgage or increasing minimum required monthly payments. The system incorporates the homeowners' checking and savings accounts with an advanced line of credit (ALOC), then helps to strategically and incrementally position their money where it provides much more financial benefit than "sitting stagnant" in a standard checking or savings account until it is otherwise needed. Complex financial details programmed into the Money Merge Account software help to better educate the homeowners and assist in some of the greatest time and interest savings possible.

Got that? There are a number of comparable products on the market. The bells and whistles may differ, but it looks like the basic idea is the same. You set up a special home equity line of credit off the value of your home (which is getting harder to do and more expensive these days, thanks to the credit crunch. As I understand it, you could use a personal line of credit or a credit card, but the latter at least sets off all kinds of alarm bells.) When you get your paycheck it goes into the line of credit, decreasing your mortgage balance and, after paying your bills from the account, the remaining money keeps your mortgage balance down. The software costs for $3500 for the Money Merge Account, and other programs also charge for their software.

Carol, as I mentioned above, I'm not a fan. In essence, I think these programs boil down to a complicated and expensive way to keep a household to a very tight budget. If that's what you want to do there are other, cheaper ways to map out and maintain a frugal lifestyle. Perhaps more important, I worry about homeowners pouring so much of their discretionary income into their home. It's nice to own your home free and clear, but it's also important to build up a well-diversified portfolio with a well-funded emergency cushion.

And if it makes sense for you to pay off your mortgage early, well, you can do it on your own without paying for special software. Just make extra payments to pay down principal. A classic approach is to make an extra monthly payment a year. By writing 13 monthly mortgage checks instead of 12 you'll pay off that loan faster. Just be sure to tell the bank in writing to put that extra payment toward principal. Last, Carol, these mortgage loan accelerator programs seem to violate a time-honored financial motto: Keep It Simple.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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