More American seniors are taking debt into their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement study.
The study, which has been conducted annually since 1990, surveys more than 20,000 Americans age 50+ on their financial well-being.
MagnifyMoney found that nearly one-third of all Americans over age 50 are carrying non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.
Carrying high-interest debt can easily erode older Americans’ ability to live a quality lifestyle in retirement. On significant problem facing seniors in debt is that debt can make it difficult to tackle the inevitable rising cost of their health care needs as they age.
“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and [needing] institutional care,” says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law. “Essentially, the [higher the] debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”
Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.
Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.
According to MagnifyMoney’s analysis, 40 percent of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. And more than one in five Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.
It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.
Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.
How to manage debt before you retire
Pay down debt first. If you’re drowning in high interest credit card debt, it may make more sense to pay that down than put money into your 401(k).
Stop financially supporting your adult children. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, nearly two-thirds of American parents had provided financial support to an adult child in the prior 12 months. Don’t take on more debt on your children’s behalf. They have the rest of their working lives to pay it off. You, on the other hand, do not.
Downsize. If you take steps now to decrease the costs of your housing, you can make more room in your budget for your needs as you age.
Delay retirement. If you spend a few more years in the workforce, it can make a big difference. You’ll not only give yourself more time to pay off debt before retirement, you’ll also delay the age at which you begin taking Social Security benefits. And the longer you wait to claim your Social Security benefits, the higher your monthly check will be.
Get help if you need it. Consider hiring a fee-only financial adviser, who can help you create a budget and a strategy to pay down debt. You can also get low-cost or free advice from a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.