Older Americans struggling with debt

More senior citizens are taking on excessive credit card debt, leaving them financially vulnerable. Reduced retirement savings due to the stock market, increased medical costs, and fixed incomes leave many seniors no choice but to rely on credit cards to survive. In fact, a recent study by Demos found that the average self-reported credit card debt among low- and middle-income consumers 65 and older increased 26% from 2005 to 2008, to $10,235.  Debt for all borrowers surveyed only increased 3% during that time. Unfortunately, financial problems of seniors are so serious that the number of older Americans filing for bankruptcy has increased at alarming rates, making them the fastest growing age group in the bankruptcy courts. While debt problems plague people of all ages, they are particularly difficult for senior citizens to handle. For example, many older Americans must forgo medical treatment and exhaust savings accounts in effort to repay debt. Following are some suggestions to consider if you or someone you know is experiencing financial trouble.

Prioritize your debts. Some debts are more important pay promptly than others. For example, you must continue to make mortgage or rent payments so that you do not lose your home. You must also pay utilities and provide food. Please do not be tempted to let your insurance coverage expire.

Know your rights. Do not feel “bullied” by collectors into making payments you cannot afford or paying debts that may not be yours. Visit FTC.gov and read the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) to learn your rights when dealing with collectors.

Make a plan. Determine how you are going to repay your debts and present that plan to your creditors. Many creditors, particularly doctors and hospitals, may be willing to reduce your required monthly payments. If you are able to negotiate a revised payment schedule, get all of the details in writing to avoid future problems.

Be realistic. You may be used to caring for others rather than having others care for you. A 2007 study by HSBC Group, the Oxford Institute of Aging, and Harris Interactive, found that older people are much more likely to give care to younger generations than to receive it themselves. However, a 2009 survey of adult children revealed that the majority (67%) were more willing to give financial help than their parents think they would be.

Tap avaiable resources. You may have more resources than you realize. According to the AARP, a reverse mortgage can turn the value of your home into cash without having to move or to repay the loan each month. In addition, you have a whole-life insurance policy, you may be able to cash-out. You might also consider taking on a part-time job or selling unneeded assets.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Research any and all assistance offered by local city and county government offices; you may also get help from your local United Way.  Children of aging parents should read the blog post on Consumerism Commentary titled Helping your parents with their finances.


Kim McGrigg is the former Manager of Community and Media Relations for MMI.

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