Sean Cooper didn’t just pay off his $255,000 mortgage in three years; he taught us all a lesson in personal branding. Mr. Cooper, a pension analyst by day, mild-mannered blogger by night, took an almost Machiavellian-like approach by achieving fame through mortgage freedom.

Buying a home in one of Canada’s most expensive cities at the age of 27 is an accomplishment in itself, but Cooper didn’t stop there. He decided to rid himself of this ‘death pledge’ in just four years – before he turned 31. Like any good blogger, Cooper published his lofty goal for all to see and then updated readers regularly on his progress.

Unlike most bloggers, however, Cooper followed through on his goal and, on September 22nd, 2015, he made his final mortgage payment and became debt-free at age 30.

Sean Cooper’s introduction to the personal finance blogosphere began as a part-time contributor on Million Dollar Journey. It was there we learned of his mortgage-killing ambition. By the time his goal was within striking distance – about a year away from mortgage-freedom – Cooper kicked off a one-man media tour that would give any good PR firm a run for its money.

After priming the pump with updates at the Financial Post, and The Globe and Mail last summer, Cooper hit the media jackpot this year by inviting CBC and other media outlets to attend his mortgage-burning party this fall. To say this went viral would be an understatement; Cooper nailed it and his story made international headlines.

I wanted to debate the merits of Cooper’s sacrifices over the last three years and whether they were worth it. From living in his own basement while renting out the upstairs, to subsisting on $100 a month in groceries, working 80-100 hours per week, not to mention the single-minded focus of paying down his $255,000 mortgage at 3.04% instead of investing even some of those funds inside an RRSP or TFSA.

But the internet has already done a good enough job criticizing Sean’s approach:

Instead of trying to determine whether Sean’s decision to nuke his mortgage cost him more than a million dollars, or how someone who seemed insecure about his finances will proceed now that he’s mortgage-free, or why brown bagging your lunch every day cuts down on the small joys in life, I want to go back to what I mentioned at the top about personal branding.

Sean Cooper, mortgage-killer and frugality expert

Sean Cooper has brilliantly positioned himself as the go-to expert on frugal living. Now, any time a media outlet or journalist is looking to interview someone about frugality, Sean Cooper will get a call. And when Sean Cooper writes a book – because you know that’s coming next – the publicity stage has already been set for a successful launch.

Was three years of sacrifice worth setting himself up for at least the next decade – if he plays his cards right – as Canada’s frugality expert? Hey, if Derek Foster can milk that “Canada’s youngest retiree” thing for six books over the last 10 years, Cooper sure as hell can ride this mortgage-free-in-3-years wave for at least a decade or more.

So congratulations, Sean, on all the sacrifices you’ve made to reach mortgage freedom! Because no headline is ever going to read: How one man became financially free by carefully saving, investing, and paying down his mortgage over two decades while achieving work-life balance.

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18 Comments

  1. Mike Holman on December 17, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Hi Robb. I can get behind completing a goal as soon as possible, but it’s hard for me to understand the desire for publicity although I guess if you plan to make money from it – more exposure is good.

    I went pretty hard at my mortgage, especially at the end. Once it was paid off, I can honestly say I probably should have taken longer to pay it off. That said, it’s hard to slow down when you are close to paying off a large debt, since you are so close to the finish line.

    And I have no plans to write a book about it. 🙂

    • Echo on December 17, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Hi Mike, thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure if Sean hired a pr firm to work behind the scenes or if he did this all on his own but it was incredible to see the amount of publicity generated by someone paying off his mortgage.

      One thing I remember you saying about paying off your mortgage is that it was pretty hard to flip the switch and take all of that money that was going toward the mortgage and direct it all toward investing afterwards. Are you finally done celebrating yet? 🙂

      • Mike Holman on December 18, 2015 at 9:15 am

        Haha – the celebration continues…

        After I paid the mortgage off, I maxed out my RRSP and the RESP and also paid off our RRSP home buyer loans. So I’d say we’ve been reasonably disciplined financially. But if you are going hard paying off a mortgage, there is no way to keep up that discipline afterwards. And frankly – there is no reason to.

        Another factor in all this is that my kids were pretty young when we paid the mortgage off (3 & 5 maybe?). As you know, in the early years, there are few costs with kids if you don’t need daycare. Plus as you put it – you are a ‘slave in your own house’, so that saves money too. 🙂

        Now, the kids do a lot of expensive activities including summer camps. ie I think their hockey costs were about $6,000 or so this year for example. Obviously they can do hockey for much less, but that’s the kind of lifestyle inflation I’ve experienced.

  2. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on December 17, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Ive debated this strategy myself and have found it just isn’t worth it given the opportunity for tax free investment income (TFSA) and super low mortgage rates. The opportunity cost is too high and it just doesn’t make sense for us to prioritize the mortgage over investing. But kudos to Sean for accomplishing his goal. I just wonder how high his RRSP/TFSA would be if he put all that money in there to compound over time. As far as the media coverage I think that was the plan all along. I’m blown away by some of the reactions to his story – he really polarized a large number of people (intentional or not). Not my style, but whatever, good for him

    • Cindi on December 18, 2015 at 9:49 am

      He couldn’t have put “all that money” into RRSP/TFSA. As we all know the dollar limits of the TFSA, etc. So highly doubtful he would be anywhere near that amount in the 3 yrs.

  3. Beth on December 18, 2015 at 5:59 am

    You raise a really interesting point. It seems the media has become cluttered with PF bloggers and writers so you have to either have an established career or a really exceptional story to get attention.

    I know I couldn’t do what he did without seriously risk my health and well being. But I don’t see the point in hating him either. Good for him. Maybe there’s a little something us average folks can take away from this story.

  4. Andrea on December 18, 2015 at 8:02 am

    I agree. It was a great career move for Sean Cooper and he handled it brilliantly. To me, it was well worth his effort and sacrifice. –As long as he leverages his current status with a book or even a reality TV show!

  5. John Ryan on December 18, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Good for Sean, but honestly I find the extreme reactions on both ends of this perplexing.

    I bought my last two properties for cash (admittedly easier here in the Midwest). Should I alert the media? =)

    • Mike Holman on December 18, 2015 at 9:36 am

      John – write the book first, then alert the media. 🙂

  6. Carol Nowlin on December 18, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Would Sean Cooper really be better off financially if he put his money into RRSPs & TFSA? Mortgage rates are extremely low, but so are low-risk investment returns. He’s only 31, so has plenty of time to grow his RRSP. AND, he has a mortgage-free principal residence in Toronto. When he sells, the entire amount is tax-free – and his RRSP and TFSA contribution room isn’t affected. In my mind that is one heck of an investment!

  7. Mike Holman on December 18, 2015 at 9:35 am

    One note about the comments and articles that claim Sean could have gotten a higher return by investing vs paying off the mortgage. That may be true (over the long run), but it’s an apples & oranges comparison. Investing in equities is higher risk, paying a mortgage off is like investing in the safest bond that ever existed.

    Plus he only ‘not invested’ for 3 years which is no time at all. I hope he dials way back on his savings rate, but he could easily invest $20k or more per year going forward which should work out fine.

  8. Richard on December 18, 2015 at 9:48 am

    That last line would be a great title for your book. And if you announce it now you can ride the publicity wave by offering an alternative

  9. KC on December 18, 2015 at 9:54 am

    While this is not for me, I can appreciate how he was willing to do what he wanted to do for his peace of mind.

    What the commenters should have done is take away some of the frugal tips (such as renting out a room, bike to work two days a week, etc) to help pay off mortgage faster while still having a work-life balance. I certainly couldn’t do Kraft dinner for 3 years but I took this as cooking at home to save money and finding alternatives to keep grocery costs down. Pasta is most definitely cheaper than meat!

    In the end, it’s our choice to do what we want to do as long as we accept the risks and consequences of these choices.

  10. MaxWorth Money Coaching on December 18, 2015 at 10:07 am

    I wrote a blog post about a week ago titled ” how I paid off my mortgage in my 30s” … which is my personal story.
    But unlike Mr Cooper, I did not eat KD every night and I did not follow an extreme frugality lifestyle.

    http://maxworth.ca/2015/12/paid-off-mortgage-30s/

  11. Bridget on December 18, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    hahaha amazing! Great points!

    I saw Sean get some flack for promoting himself throughout it all, but anyone that’s met him knows he’s a nice guy. Yes his methods were unorthodox and even those of us who believe in managing your finances will never follow suit, but I think people are missing the big picture. He sacrificed some good years in his 20’s but he is free — totally free — for the rest of his life now. That’s a huge accomplishment.

    It almost makes me wish I had subsisted on mac & cheese more in my 20’s.

    … but I also love KD.

  12. My Own Advisor on December 19, 2015 at 7:44 am

    I wish Sean all the best going forward. As for the brand, I think he did a great job promoting himself – he’ll certainly be asked about his frugal lifestyle for years to come.

    Regarding the killing mortgage debt first vs. investing, personally, I’m glad my wife and I are taking a balanced approach (investing and killing debt). If you can earn more money investing vs. the interest rate on your mortgage, as you know Robb, you know what you should likely do. This year was a horrible year for the markets but over the last 10 years, you would have come out ahead investing vs. mortgage debt paydown.

    That math argument aside, 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, a young Sean Cooper wouldn’t have known what the future holds – nobody would have.

    In the end, Sean did the best thing that meant the most to him – killing his debt – and now he can use the income that was going to debt for himself. In the end, as long as Sean is happy with his decisions that’s really all that matters. That tagline applies to others as well. Who cares what others think including me! 🙂

    Mark

  13. Stephen Weyman on December 19, 2015 at 9:59 am

    I agree Robb, masterfully done. Even if we have no desire to apply all that much of what Sean did to pay off his mortgage ASAP, we can certainly take a page out of his book on self promotion. When I saw the mortgage burning video on CBC, I was a little flabbergasted at just how contrived it all was. It was like a well orchestrated concert and really fun to watch.

    We paid off our first mortgage in 5 years, but where we live that isn’t nearly the same feat as it is in the GTA. I also had some help from my wife! I didn’t alert the media, but they did actually contact me a few years ago and I did end up in a story in the Financial Post. I didn’t really think it was newsworthy at the time, but since she contacted me I also didn’t see any reason to turn her down.

    Congrats Sean – the best part of the story for me is that you are planning to make up a little for lost time now that you’ve slain your mortgage best!

  14. Sean Cooper, Financial Journalist on December 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Thank you for the kind words everyone. Honestly, I had no idea my story would go viral. If I was smarter, I would have released my book when the CBC National piece came out (but alas I don’t have a crystal ball haha). A book is in the works though.

    Fun fact: I wasn’t originally planning to burn my mortgage. I was just going to tear it up. Then the CBC reporter insisted I burn it and the rest is history!

    I’m still trying to monetize the publicity. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. Happy holidays and all the best!

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