Older Americans have more than doubled their amount of debt over a dozen years, and many of them make ends meet by forgoing home or car repairs and cutting medications in half, according to a new report by the National Council on Aging.
"We need to recognize that debt is a problem among this population, and help prepare older adults to better manage their future medical, housing and other daily expenses as they age," Maggie Flowers, the council's associate director for economic security, said in a statement.
The council looked at government figures on the debt levels of households headed by adults age 60 and older as of 2013. Among the findings:
- The median total debt has more than doubled from $18,285 in 2001 to $40,900 in 2013.
- One in 25 households had a negative net worth, meaning their liabilities surpassed their assets. In 2001, 1 in 50 had a negative net worth.
- More households carry credit card debt and more of it. Nearly one-third of households owed money on a credit card -- up from just over a quarter of them a dozen years ago. And the median credit card debt over that time doubled to $2,450.
Mortgage loans make up the largest slice of debt among older consumers, as homeowners over the past decade have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to refinance and tap the equity in their houses, says Lori Trawinski, director of banking and finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Borrowers typically don't take out loans that they don't expect to repay, although unexpected setbacks such as an illness or the loss of a job or spouse can make that debt unmanageable, Trawinski adds. And the older you are, the harder it is to overcome these setbacks, she says.
The council surveyed some professionals who work at senior centers, Area Agencies on Aging and other agencies to find out what trade-offs older consumers are making to manage their debt. Many report that seniors forgo needed home or car repairs, cut pills, avoid social engagements, skip medical appointments and meals, and miss rent and mortgage payments to try to make ends meet.
The council offers two online services to assist seniors. The EconomicsCheckUp can help older adults reduce debt, find work and cut spending, while BenefitsCheckUp posts information on federal, state and local benefits available to lower-income households.
AARP also offers online calculators to help with budgeting and managing debt. And AARP's Work amp; Jobs site can help with a job search.