Dear Liz: My husband and I are squabbling over how to pay for the pool we may get. We have a line of credit on the house, and rates are still low. I say we use that, make it part of the mortgage and pass the cost on to the next owner (assuming that, someday, we sell this house). He wants to pay cash, which seems insane to me. I don't pay cash to buy a car — why wouldn't I finance a pool?
Answer: You probably should pay cash for your cars. Borrowing money is usually advisable only when you’re buying something that can increase your wealth, such as an education that helps you make more money or a home that can appreciate in value. Paying interest to buy something that declines in value generally isn’t a great idea.
Whether a pool can add value to your home depends a lot on where you live. If pools aren’t common in your neighborhood, adding one may not add much if any value. A pool could even place you at a disadvantage by turning off potential buyers who might not want to deal with the hassle and expense of pool maintenance. Parents with young children also may shy away from pools because of the drowning risk.
Adding a pool could increase your home’s value if you live in a warm climate and most of your neighbors have pools. But even then, it’s unlikely that your pool will add as much value as it would cost to install. (Home improvements rarely result in a profit — even the best-considered upgrades typically cost more than the value they add.)
A reasonable compromise might be to finance half the cost and pay cash for the rest. You’ll still want to pay off the line of credit relatively quickly, though. Lines of credit typically have variable interest rates that can make this debt more expensive over time.
You won’t be passing on the cost to the next owner in any case. Any money you borrow against your home has to be paid off when you sell, reducing your net proceeds. That’s yet another reason not to borrow indiscriminately.
The Social Security waiting game
Dear Liz: I am 66 and had always planned to delay starting Social Security until I was 70. I do not need the income at this point of my life. I am no longer working as my husband has health issues and I do not expect to have any earned income.
But the latest statement I received from Social Security told me that the projected higher amount I would receive at age 70 is based on taxable earnings similar to what I was making before I retired. Now I have concerns that my lack of income will lower the amount of my benefit. Is it best for me to just start Social Security now?
Answer: No. You won’t increase your benefit. In fact, you’d be giving up the guaranteed 8% annual boost you would otherwise get.
Knowing how Social Security calculates your benefit can help you understand why this is true. Social Security bases your check on your 35 highest earning years. If you worked this year, then your 2019 wages could conceivably become one of those highest earning years, displacing a year when you earned less. That typically results in a slight increase to your benefit.
If you don’t work, however — or do work and don’t earn more than you did in one of those 35 highest earning years — your benefit remains the same.
Social Security projections assume you work until you claim benefits, so its estimates may slightly overstate the check you’ll actually get. But you will still receive the delayed retirement credit that boosts your check by 8% for each year you delay starting Social Security after your full retirement age of 66. That’s a 32% increase if you wait until age 70, when your benefits max out, to start. And that is definitely worth waiting for.