Will I be in debt for the rest of my life?

Some debts are loving, long-term commitments. When you buy a house, for example, you’re saying “I do” to a mortgage that’s going to be a part of your life for the next 30 years.

Other debts are casual flings that turn into a decade-long tempest of bitter, painful torment. You try to say goodbye, but setbacks and circumstances keep that debt sticking around for years and years, to the point where you can’t even remember where that debt came from and why you ever wanted it in your life.

Debt has a way of sticking around longer than you’d like it to, but what if it never went away? What if debt followed you all the way to your end of days?

According to a new survey from CreditCards.com, at least 21 percent of Americans believe they will never, ever be free of debt. That’s up from 18 percent last year.

Is this a case of misplaced doom and gloom? Or are Americans actually more likely to die in debt?

Senior debts skyrocketing

The numbers aren’t promising. For starters, seniors are filing bankruptcy with historically high frequency. A 2011 study by John A.E. Pottow at the University of Michigan Law School found that consumers 65 and older carry 50 percent more credit card debt than younger consumers, which is the major reason why that age group has the fastest rising bankruptcy rate.

Meanwhile, a separate 2013 study found that 22 percent of households headed by someone 75 and older carried some amount of credit card debt. That may not seem significant, but consider that as of 1998 only 11 percent of these households carried such debt, meaning the rate doubled in less than 15 years.

That’s just credit card debt, however. Per the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, when 2012 ended, over 2.2 million seniors (60 and above) were responsible for some amount of student loan debt. The average balance for these borrowers was just under $20,000 and the delinquency rate was 12.5 percent.

Mortgage debt is also burdening consumers much deeper into retirement age than ever before. In 1989, only 6 percent of seniors 75 and older had mortgage debt. By 2012, that number had quadrupled to 24 percent.

What’s happening here?

There’s really no single culprit. The old cycle of a long career with a mortgage paid in full just in time for retirement is no more. Economic uncertainty and unexpected recessions like the one in 2008 have derailed a lot of long-term plans. Additionally, seniors are often required to use their homes’ equity or their retirement savings to manage sizable medical debts. Unemployment, stagnant wages, and insufficient retirement savings all have a hand in American seniors’ increasing dependence on credit.

That said, things are far from hopeless. That same CreditCards.com survey found that 22 percent of respondents are currently debt-free, which is up from only 14 percent last year. Jobs are continually created as the national economy continues to improve. Consumers overcome enormous debts on a daily basis. More importantly, assistance is always available to anyone struggling with what feels like a hopeless amount of debt.

If you’re concerned that you’re never going to be free from debt, take an active step to address that concern.

  • Consider speaking with a certified financial counselor. Budget counseling is free and is a great way to get an expert perspective on your financial situation.
  • Create a personal repayment plan. Tighten up your budget and focus on making increased debt payments. The more work you do now, the more likely it is that you won’t have to carry that cloud of debt with you into your retirement years.
  • Speak to a retirement specialist. It can be scary feeling like you won’t have enough money to manage during your retirement years. So be proactive and get some professional advice. Just understanding how your current actions will impact your future finances can remove a lot of stress.
  • Build an emergency savings fund. Unexpected setbacks can ruin an otherwise great plan. One of your best defenses against unexpected debt is a healthy emergency savings account. Make a concerted effort to start building up your savings and you’ll be able to minimize the impact of most major setbacks.

Debt is a pretty normal part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your entire life. If you’re afraid of taking debt into your retirement years, you can do something about that. It isn’t always easy getting rid of unwanted debt, but if you’re hoping for a nice, stress-free retirement, it’s worth the effort.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.
  • The National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER) is the nation’s oldest and largest higher education finance trade association. NCHER’s membership includes state, nonprofit, and for-profit higher education service organizations, including lenders, servicers, guaranty agencies, collection agencies, financial literacy providers, and schools, interested and involved in increasing college access and success. It assists its members in shaping policies governing federal and private student loan and state grant programs on behalf of students, parents, borrowers, and families.

  • Since 2007, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) has served as a trusted, neutral source of information for more than eight million homeowners. They are partnered with, and endorsed by, numerous major government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

  • The Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. Their mission is to partner with human service organizations worldwide to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards.

  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.