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Consumer Debt Cuts Across Generations

Americans from 18 to 80 are struggling with debt, survey finds

Age is no protection against debt—in fact, 60 percent of people 50 and over are in debt, according to a new AARP Bulletin survey.

More than 1,000 Americans age 18 and older answered questions about the amount and type of debt they carry, including mortgages, credit card balances, student loans, auto loans or cash owed to others. Ideally, boomers would be heading into their retirement years almost debt-free, but that’s not the case, according to the results:

  • 60 percent of the 50-plus group are carrying debt.
  • 73 percent of those ages 18 to 49 have obligations (although that is largely because of student loans, says Gerard Rainville, an AARP senior research adviser and author of the report).

The conclusion: “Debt is universal,” Rainville says.

Universal and overwhelming

Four out of 10 respondents with debt said they owed half of their monthly income. One-fourth owed about 75 percent—like 48-year-old Lisa, a construction company controller in St. Louis, who asked that her last name not be used. Everything was fine, she says, until her 65-year-old husband lost his job.

“Suddenly we had less than half our income, but the bills stayed the same,” she says. “We’re still managing our mortgage, but we had to stop paying our credit card balances.”

The couple have drained their savings, cut out all the extras and given up doctor visits. Now they are negotiating to modify their mortgage and reduce their credit card balances.

“We’re just plugging along and trying to stay afloat,” she says.

A closer look at the 50-plus age group shows that, even though the mortgage may have been paid off, 58 percent owe at least half of their monthly income.

“I was surprised to see that older Americans still have a significant debt obligation,” says Rainville. “Obviously it’s hard to get out from behind the eight ball.” Credit card debt reflects this: Almost 30 percent carry an unpaid balance from month to month.

But not every older person has this problem. “I’ve never had a credit card,” says Vince deVaux, 60, of Fullerton, Calif. “I pay cash for everything.”

Other findings:

  • One in 10 respondents across all ages filed for bankruptcy or considered filing. Rainville considers that significant. “It looks like a small percentage,” he says, “but given the gravity of that step, I find it dramatic.” It also shows that debt is equally burdensome across all age groups, he says.
  • Almost half (46 percent) of those with debt said they have tried to reduce their obligations over the past six months. Of those, 70 percent are using debit cards instead of credit cards. The same percentage has cut down on expenses like eating out and vacations. More than half (55 percent) are paying more than the minimum balance every month.
  • Only 21 percent of all survey participants have tried to negotiate better terms with their lenders. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of variation in how the different age groups try to reduce debt,” says Rainville. “Nobody has any new ideas.”

Cathie Gandel is a writer in Bridgehampton, N.Y.


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