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Study finds seniors piling up credit card debt

Rising cost of living, fixed incomes making borrowing a necessity

Nancy Trejos Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Alice Smith thought she would live comfortably and quietly in her Hyattsville, Md., retirement community. Instead she’s fretfully dodging calls from her creditors.

She owes more than $10,000 to four credit card companies and more than $7,000 to a credit union – in part, she said, because of spending to help her family. She doesn’t give exact figures because she is unsure of them: With late fees and higher interest rates, the amount she owes has grown. Her income has not. Through Social Security and a pension from her former job at a National Institutes of Health laboratory, she receives about $2,000 a month. Her rent is $955. She doesn’t know how she can ever pay down her debts. So she thinks she just might not.

“I am 80 years old,” she said, “and I don’t need this headache at my age.”

Older Americans are among the most vulnerable age group in this recession. They are carrying debt loads they can barely handle with their fixed incomes, dwindling retirement savings and, in many cases, devalued homes.

Average credit card debt among low- and middle-income Americans 65 and older carrying a balance for more than three months reached $10,235, up 26 percent from 2005, according to a recently released study by the public policy group Demos. It was the fastest increase of any age group. Soon-to-be retirees are also struggling with debt.

It’s a surprising reversal of fortune for a generation that had been considered more financially responsible than younger generations. Frequent or frivolous use of credit cards had not been a common trait of older Americans, particularly those 65 and older, because credit was not as easily available in their formative years. Now, even they are finding they have little choice but to borrow money.

“What’s changed in this challenging economy is that no generation is immune from tough times. And it means that many older adults find they need to use credit cards as a means to stretch a fixed income, meet rising costs, pay for unexpected medical or household expenses, or to even help adult children,” said Angela Rabatin, an adjunct professor of finance and contract law at University of Maryland University College and Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.

In 2007, the most recent figure available, the percentage of 55- to 64-year-olds who had to use more than 40 percent of their income toward paying down debt was 12.5 percent, higher than any other age group, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which studies pensions and benefits. Those who were 65 to 74 did not trail far behind, with 11.2 percent contributing that big a chunk of their income toward their debt.

“Even going into the downturn of the economy, a significant percentage of people were at that threshold considered dangerous for debt,” said Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at the institute.

Rising medical costs and less-generous health insurance plans, in particular, are burdening retirees and soon-to-be retirees. As the battle over health care reform rages on, many are turning to borrowed money to pay for prescriptions and doctor visits.

“Some of these older Americans are picking up the brunt of this recession,” said Jose Garcia, associate director of research and policy for Demos. “Some of them were maybe relying on their home equities for retirements. Their pensions have gone down. … Making it through the week becomes an issue.”

The Demos study found that, on average, $4,000 of a senior citizen’s card debt had covered medical expenses, such as prescription drugs, dental expenses and doctor visits.

“A great deal of senior spending is health care, and health care costs have been outpacing inflation for a long time,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP.

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