I know that whenever I write about credit card debt, Social Security, or couples and their money troubles, I'm guaranteed to get an overwhelming reader response.

I'm now adding to that list the question of whether homeowners should pay off their home loans early. I tried to help answer this question for a couple who wrote to me recently.

The couple have a 30-year loan with a balance of $158,000 and a fixed interest rate of 7.5 percent. They have enough money in the bank to pay off the loan, with much to spare. So they wanted to know whether they should refinance and keep their cash or pay off their mortgage.

One financial planner I consulted suggested that they pay off the mortgage. Another recommended that they refinance.

"You opened a Pandora's box when you wrote about paying off your mortgage early," wrote one reader.

Oh, boy, was he right.

Everybody and his mama -- from university professors to retired homeowners to mortgage and real estate professionals -- had a theory, economic formula or opinion and wanted to weigh in on this topic.

For example, one reader pointed out that if you aren't in the same enviable position as the aforementioned couple, you have another option.

"Paying off a mortgage is not an all-or-nothing event," the reader said. "It is quite possible to pay down rather than pay off a mortgage."

This is indeed a good strategy if you're not flush with cash. For example, suppose you have a $200,000, 30-year mortgage with a 6.5 percent fixed interest rate. Your principal and interest payment would be $1,264. You could knock about 10 years off that loan and save about $100,000 in interest if you paid an extra $230 a month toward your principal.

To calculate the savings in the example, I used the online mortgage calculator at www.ewmortgage.com/ew/tools/t_calculator02.asp.

Of course, you could prepay a smaller amount. Make an extra payment of $50 a month and you save nearly $32,000 in interest and shave about three years off the loan.

If you decide to prepay your loan, check with your lender to make sure there are no prepayment penalties. Most important, don't forget to specify that the extra payment be applied to the loan principal. Check your mortgage statement each month to make sure any extra payments have been credited correctly.

Now, some readers didn't like the advice from the planner who suggested that the couple refinance. They didn't think he had enough information to make a recommendation.

"The advice which should be given to this couple depends on their age, their tolerance for risk, and their other obligations, such as children's education," wrote an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

He was right. But each planner did consider certain personal information about the couple I didn't reveal to readers. But the point the professor made is well taken. You should consider a number of things before paying off your mortgage, such as:

* Do you have an emergency stash of cash? You should have at the very least three to six months of living expenses saved. You may need to save more if you work in an industry hit hard by layoffs. Keep in mind that once you lose your job and your income drops, you may not be able to tap into your home equity by getting a loan.

* Do you have any other higher-interest debt? If so, pay off that debt first.

* Have you fully funded any tax-deferred retirement accounts available to you?

* Do you need the money for other financial goals first, such as paying for your children's college education?

Finally, many readers thought paying off a mortgage before retirement is worth the peace of mind even if a financial calculation proves otherwise.

"[My dad] only held two jobs his whole life, neither of which offered a pension or other perks for retirement," one man wrote. "At the end of his working life, all he had for living expenses was the monthly Social Security check.

"By the time he retired at age 70, he made sure the house -- the largest living expense in any household -- was paid off. And that, I think, is a key factor missing from your calculation whether to pay off the house: How near are you to retirement? Returns on investments are uncertain; the cost of a mortgage is not. You can be sure that by the time I hit retirement age, the mortgage will be paid off. And I'll thank Dad for the lesson!"

The lesson for all of us: There are many variables to consider if you want to pay off your mortgage early. No one rule of thumb or calculation is best for everyone.

While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Readers can also write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.