An American flag patch next to a house key.

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Most of us can't afford to buy a home outright. That's why mortgages exist -- so we can borrow money and pay off our homes over time. 

But have you ever wondered how your mortgage balance compares to that of the typical borrower? If so, The Ascent has answers. New research on household debt found that the average U.S. mortgage balance, as of October 2020, was $215,655. As such, the average monthly mortgage payment as of 2019 was $1,487. 

Now let's be clear about one thing -- mortgage debt is not like credit card debt. Mortgage debt is healthy -- it helps you build equity in an asset, and in time, you may be able to sell that asset (your home) for more than what you paid for it. A credit card balance, on the other hand, is unhealthy, because all it does is cost you money. 

But even though mortgage debt is the healthy, responsible kind to have, the longer you carry it, the more interest you'll pay your lender. If you'd rather knock out your mortgage sooner, here's how.

1. Use windfalls to chip away at your balance

Many of us get our hands on extra money during the year. You may, for example, get a bonus from your employer during the holidays, a tax refund from the IRS, or even a generous gift from your grandmother to celebrate a milestone or birthday. If you make a point to use your extra cash for mortgage payoff purposes, you'll lower your principal and shave interest off your loan.

2. Pay your mortgage every two weeks instead of once a month

Typically, when you pay off a mortgage, you make one payment each month to your lender. But if you want to get rid of that home loan sooner, switch your payment schedule so you're sending your lender a check every two weeks for half of your regular monthly payment. In the course of a year, you'll end up making a couple of extra payments, which will help you whittle down that debt faster.

3. Refinance to a lower interest rate

Refinancing lets you swap your existing mortgage for a new one, only at a lower interest rate. That, in turn, could lower your monthly payment. For example, if you currently have a $1,500 monthly mortgage payment, refinancing could drop that payment to $1,300. But if that happens and you continue making the $1,500 payments you were used to, that extra $200 a month will go toward your loan's principal so you can get done paying it sooner. 

Another option is to refinance to a loan with a shorter term. Say you're 10 years into a 30-year mortgage and you decide to refinance. If you get a 20-year loan, you'll stay on the payment schedule you were previously on. But if you go for a 15-year loan instead, you'll cut your repayment period by five years. 

No matter what your mortgage balance looks like, there are things you can do to pay it off sooner. But the question is: Should you? 

If the interest rate on your mortgage is low, you may be better off hanging onto that home loan and using your money for other things, like investing. While paying off your mortgage ahead of schedule is certainly admirable, it's not something everyone can or even should do, so before you push yourself to make that happen, think about what you hope to gain from it and whether it's really the right move for you.