More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.
1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt
The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.
In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.
We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry 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.
High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.
“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more 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.
“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.
Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.
According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) 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.
Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash
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.
Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.
Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals
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.
The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.
For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.
Increased debt loads over time
High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.
Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.
Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it's not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.
Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.
Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”
How older Americans can manage debt
High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.
Focus on debt first.
Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.
Downsize your lifestyle
As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.
Cut off adult children
Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.
According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.
Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.
Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.
Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.
Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.
Consider every option
If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”
Don’t take on new debt
It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”
Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.