Rethinking Retirement


Don't Let Debt Derail Your Retirement

Eleanor Laise

Average debt is spiking amongst older Americans, and that could spell trouble for many people's plans to retire.



Adrift on a sea of red ink, more middle class Americans are feeling queasy about their retirement plans. And many of those struggling to save have very little time to right the ship.

A series of new studies released by AARP on Tuesday probed the causes and consequences of middle class financial woes. One dominant theme: Rising levels of credit card, mortgage, student-loan and other debt threaten to push many people out of the middle class during their retirement years.

While average debt increased for all age groups between 1989 and 2010, the oldest retirees saw the largest spike, AARP found. Average debt among people 75 and older climbed 978% over this period, compared with a 384% increase for people 65 to 74 and an 89% increase for 25- to 49-year-olds. A shorter-term view doesn't make the picture much prettier: For people 75 and older, average debt soared 108% between 2007 and 2010, even as 25- to 49-year-olds saw debt drop 15%.

More and more Americans are reaching their sixties with so much debt that they can't afford to retire, AARP Chief Executive Officer Barry Rand said at a press conference releasing the research. And rising debt levels will likely contribute to a stark decline in the standard of living for many future retirees. About 37% of today's middle-income workers age 45 to 54 will fall into the lower third of the income spectrum in retirement, according to a projection from the Urban Institute.

High-interest credit card debt poses one of the gravest threats to retirement security. Among middle-income people 50 and older carrying credit card debt for three months or more, the average balance hit nearly $8,300 in 2012, compared with about $6,250 for those under 50, according to research and advocacy group Demos. This isn't a matter of older folks spending too much time at the mall. About half of people 50 and older carry medical expenses on their credit cards, Demos found. And more than one-third use credit cards to pay for groceries, utilities, rent and other essentials.

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With little time left to replenish depleted savings, older people are draining retirement funds to pay down credit cards. Nearly one-fourth of people 50 and older said they had tapped into retirement funds to pay down credit card debt in the past year, according to Demos, compared with just 9% of those under 50.

Mortgages and soaring college tuition costs are also contributing to the vicious debt spiral. People 60 and older carried $43 billion in student-loan debt in the first quarter of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, up from $8 billion at the start of 2005. And among people 50 and older, 6% of mortgage loans were seriously delinquent in 2011, according to AARP, up from 1.1% in 2007.

AARP hopes the new research will bolster its arguments for preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits. Those policy debates will play out in Washington in the months and years to come—but meanwhile, older people have bills to pay.

The February cover story of Kiplinger's Retirement Report looks at the concrete steps older people should take now to lighten their debt load. Whether you're struggling with credit card or student-loan debt or simply wondering whether to accelerate your mortgage payments, we point to a host of resources that can help. We also tell you how to spot red flags when dealing with firms that promise to help you manage your debt.

What are your favorite strategies for paying down debt before retirement? We'd love to hear your ideas. Join the conversation at www.facebook.com/KiplingerPersonalFinance, or e-mail us at retire@kiplinger.com.




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