Debt has doubled for retirees. Here's how to protect yourself

by Derek Silva
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Debt has doubled for retirees. Here's how to protect yourself

American household debt is higher than ever, and it’s only increasing. In the past decade, seniors’ total debt has nearly doubled.

Americans aged 70 and older had 88.3% more debt in 2019 than in 2010, three times more than any other group.

Total debt increase from 2010 to 2019 by age, in trillions of dollars

Ages 18-29 Ages 30-39 Ages 40-49 Ages 50-59 Ages 60-69 Ages 70+
+25.8% +16% +0.2% +7.2% +28.4% +88.3%

What senior debt looks like in 2019

More than 70% of debt for people aged 60 or older was in mortgages. This isn’t unique to older Americans: Mortgage debt makes up at least 70% of debt for Americans starting in their 40s.

Credit card debt is also high for seniors. For individuals in their 60s, credit card debt accounts for 7.4% of all debt. That rises to 9.5% for people aged 70 and older. Across all other age groups, credit card debt accounts for just 5.8% of all debt.

Debt composition for seniors in 2019

Ages 60-69 Ages 70+
Mortgage debt 71.4% 70.4%
Student loan debt 4.0% 1.7%
Auto loan debt 8.4% 7.9%
Credit card debt 7.4% 9.5%
HELOCs 5.1% 6.7%
Other debt 3.6% 3.8%
Total debt in U.S. $2.14 trillion $1.15 trillion

Why is senior debt so high?

There is no single reason why debt has ballooned for older Americans.

An American turning 60 in 2019 would have been in their 40s in 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession. For many Americans, the prime time to pay off a mortgage is in their 40s and 50s. The recession made paying a mortgage very difficult. Monthly payments for adjustable-rate mortgages increased. Anyone who was planning to refinance a mortgage around that time likely couldn’t, extending how long it took to pay off their mortgage. Someone looking to buy a house at this time may also have had to wait until after the recession because mortgage rates were higher and lending requirements were stricter.

Most Americans also don’t have enough in savings to cover their costs of living. A lack of savings can lead to credit card debt when emergencies arise.

4 tips for avoiding debt later in life

1. Pay off as much debt as you can before retirement
Carrying debt into your 60s can have a number of adverse effects. One example is that it can lead some people to begin taking Social Security benefits earlier to help pay down debt. This leaves retirees with a lower monthly benefit in the long term.

2. Consider a reverse mortgage
Are you trying to pay off a mortgage in your 60s? Consider a reverse mortgage once you reach age 62. This allows you to make money off the equity you have in your house. It can also be a better alternative than a home equity line of credit, also known as a second mortgage.

3. Save more ... but really
Everyone should commit to saving more in retirement accounts and in an emergency savings account (go for a high-yield savings account).

It’s a common belief that people spend less once they reach retirement age. This isn’t always the case. Expenses for clothing and transportation do generally decrease, but some expenses increase. The biggest example is healthcare. Spending data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that average annual health insurance costs are $1,188 higher for people aged 65 to 74 than for people aged 45 to 64. The cost of medical supplies, drugs and overall medical care can also increase.

4. Contribute to retirement accounts
Since you typically won’t have a steady income after you retire, it’s vital to have some retirement savings so you can cover your bills. But Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement. A 2019 study from Vanguard found that the median 401(k) balance for individuals aged 65 and older was just $58,035. Our previous study on the average cost of retirement found that you should expect to spend at least $800,000 over a 20-year retirement.

Try to save more for retirement this year. Do you have a 401(k) through your employer? If so, make sure you’re contributing something. If your employer offers a match, try to at least contribute up to the full match — otherwise you’re passing up on free money. (Learn more about how 401(k) plans work.)

If you don’t have a retirement account through work, consider an individual retirement account. These accounts offer tax benefits, and you can contribute as long as you have some job income. Learn how to open an IRA.

Image: Vlad Sargu