A hungry stomach doesn’t call you demanding money, but a debt collector going after your unpaid medical, utility and loan bills will. So maybe you choose to pay the bills instead of buying groceries — that’s the kind of dilemma facing millions of baby boomers, according to a survey from Feeding America and the AARP Foundation.
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More than 8 million Americans ages 50 through 64 rely on food assistance to make ends meet — that group is at greater risk of food insecurity because of their limited access to federal benefits while also dealing with high unemployment rates, according to the report. More than half (58%) of them have unpaid medical bills, in addition to their trouble affording food. Of the older population served by Feeding America (13 million Americans older than 50), 63% find themselves having to choose between buying food or paying for medical care. Sixty percent report having to choose between paying utilities and buying food, and 49% weigh paying for housing versus paying for food.
That’s where the debt cycle can really kick in, making it even more difficult for boomers to dig their way out. Being forced to miss payments because it’s either pay for food or pay the bills can lead to dealing with debt collectors or even a lawsuit over the unpaid balance. Many older Americans likely use credit cards to buy food or purchase other necessities, which only sets up that population for more financial problems. Older Americans historically carry more credit card debt than younger age groups. (You can see how your credit card debt is affecting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)
There are 108.7 million Americans older than 50, according to 2014 figures from AARP, so 13 million may not seem like a huge figure (it’s about 12%), but keep in mind that those are only the people served by Feeding America, so those who don’t seek assistance aren’t included in the report.
Here’s the takeaway for consumers younger than 50: Savings are crucial to your long-term security. You may not be able to plan for everything, but by establishing an emergency fund and planning for your future could keep you from spending your 50s and beyond in debt. (Living it up in the Midwest sounds much more appealing.) Directing money from your paycheck into different savings vehicles is important, but one area of savings people often overlook is their credit standing. An excellent credit score can save you tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime (if not more), which is why you should focus on building and maintaining good credit throughout your life. You can see how your credit score will affect your finances by using this free lifetime cost of debt calculator, and perhaps you’ll get a little motivation to improve your score.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for Credit.com. Previously, she managed communications for the Society of Professional Journalists, served as a copy editor of The New York Times News Service and worked as a reporter for the Oregonian and the News & Record. More by Christine DiGangi