Published February 22, 2013
Retirement is supposed to be the “golden years” for older Americans, but massive debt is tarnishing that dream.
A new study finds Americans aged 75 and older are becoming increasingly saddled with debt, forcing them to change their lifestyle and struggle to make ends.
The report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found families headed by individuals 75 and older had an average amount of debt greater than 40% of their income in 2010. Families headed by Americans between normal retirement age, 55 to 64, and just after retirement, 65 to 74, had small changes in these debt measures, and in some cases, improvements.
Debt nearly doubled for families headed by those 75 and up from 2007 to 2010, climbing from $13,665 to $27,409. The average debt for households headed by someone 55 and up was $75,082 in 2010, up more than $1,300 (adjusted for inflation) from 2007. These people are likely still working, however, making the debt burden for those 75 and older even heavier. The driver of debt for those with a household headed by an American 55 or older was housing debt, with nearly three-fourths of debt payments going toward housing.
Certified financial planner Michael Keating says about 40% of single Americans in the 65 and older category are relying on Social Security as their only source of income. The average Social Security benefit check for a retired worker was around $1,230 per month in 2012, translating into a meager $14,760 yearly before taxes. The EBRI found around 63% of all American families with heads 55 and up had debt, a figure which held steady from 2007 to 2010.
“Looking at their amount of debt is high, but look at the other side of that balance sheet,” Keating says. “So many are relying on that as their only income, so they are adding more debt and piling on. The lack of income during the golden years is astounding.”
The EBRI also found the percentage of families with heads age 75 or older experiencing their debt increase to 38.5% in 2010 from 31.2% in 2007. The percentage total debt payments represent of income increased to 7.1% from 4.5%.
Older Americans supporting their children for longer is a likely culprit for this debt, according to certified financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole.
“A parent’s natural instinct is to help their child, and I see that over and over again,” Lyons Cole says. “The reality is that most of our elderly are not in the position to be helping and need to learn to say, ‘No,’ which is a heartbreaking thing to do.”
It’s also a myth that retirees downsize in their later years, Keating adds. The lackluster housing market over the last five years forced many to stay in their homes longer because selling and relocation wasn’t cost effective.
“That’s not happening anymore,” he says. “Especially with all of the transaction-related charges involved with selling a home and buying another one, it doesn’t make much sense to do.”
Early planning and saving is the only way to secure retirement, Keating says.
“A 401(k), a Roth IRA, that alphabet soup—that will be your main income in retirement,” he says. “Also, right now with taxes going up, it’s the most tax-effective way to make savings because you are reducing the amount of money that is subject to income tax. It’s a scary thought, but we have to think of how to learn from these mistakes.”
Lyons Cole says to do your best to have your mortgage paid off before retirement. And if you are overwhelmed, seek professional help.
“You can figure out how to maximize what you have, and they can help with intergenerational planning,” she says. “There are strategies that exist, including bankruptcy, but it’s really a case-by-case basis.”