An Alarming Fact About American Retirement

Just about everyone -- even those who love their jobs – look forward to the day they can chuck it all in and retire. A large portion of the American Dream, it's the time of life when we can sit back and enjoy the rewards of a lifetime's work, free from the stress of the rat race, having prepared for the decrease in income by paying off homes, cars, college costs, and other bills. Or, so it used to be.

A recent study shows that the rosy perception that many of us still harbor about our so-called "golden years" may not be true anymore. The reason? Mounting debt, particularly credit card debt that results from older people attempting to keep up with other bills by using plastic. And it's not just people in their middle years who are experiencing this phenomenon. The elderly are the only age group that has actually increased their level of credit card debt since 2007.

Study shows disquieting trends
A collaborative study by AARP and Demos, a public policy research organization, points up just how hard the financial crisis hit older Americans. The survey, which included nearly 1,000 persons with incomes between $20,000 and $99,000 who carried a credit card balance for at least three months, showed that people aged 45-64 now hold substantially more card debt than those aged 34 and younger. Those young people, of all age groups, also registered the highest reduction of credit card debt between the years 2007 and 2010 by nearly 10 percentage points -- while those in the elderly group, aged 75 and older, actually raised their debt levels by almost 3 percentage points during those years.

For the 50-plus age group -- the time of life when most workers begin to think about preparing for retirement -- the survey results paint a bleak picture. Demos found that all consumers cut their credit card debt between the years 2008 and 2012, but that those under age 50 slashed their debt by more than 37%, while older Americans were only able to muster a reduction of a little more than 15%.

Even more unsettling is the news that older consumers weren't using those cards to splurge. Most used their cards to maintain their homes and cars, help relatives with their bills, or pay medical expenses. Additionally, credit cards were also used by many in this age group to pay for food, utilities, and insurance.

As if these study results weren't depressing enough, those over 50 are much more likely than younger card users to attempt to pay down their credit card debt with home equity loans. With mortgage rates low and average credit card rates sitting around 16%, 11% of older homeowners admitted to paying off credit card debt of more than $8,000 with equity from their homes. Unfortuntately, these same persons still maintained high card balances of over $10,000 after paying down card debt.

For American 75 and older, the study highlights a worrying trend toward accumulating more credit card debt, with a rise of nearly 3 percentage points from 2007 to 2010. Although the study doesn't explicitly say so, some analysts assume that medical expenses may be the reason for the jump in seniors' indebtedness.

Credit card issuers are reaping the benefits
All this charging and balance-carrying is great news for those institutions that make these cards possible. According to Card Hub, the top five card issuers by purchase volume are, starting with No. 1: American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , Bank of America, Citigroup's (NYSE: C  ) Citibank, and Capital One.

Not surprisingly, Visa (NYSE: V  ) is the top card network by purchase volume, followed by American Express, MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) , and Discover. Visa has seen its stock value rise by 35% over the past year, consistently beating earnings and revenue estimates for each quarter during that time frame. MasterCard has seen its share price rise by 23%, and though it missed revenue estimates twice, that metric continues to rise. As for American Express, JPMorgan Chase has recently reported that its longtime battle to snag the former's well-heeded customers is paying off. 

Rays of hope?
While it's nice to hear that credit card purveyors are doing swimmingly, the current move toward pre-retirement populations piling on more debt as their golden years approach is disconcerting. Even those with a higher level of assets are in trouble, according to another survey, which notes that 22% of respondents were likely not going to shed their credit card debt by the time they retired.

Though grim, the study offered some bright spots. It notes that the 2010 CARD Act has helped increase awareness of credit card debt and probably kept consumers from paying outrageous fees. Also, the youngest age group's drastic reduction in card debt over the past five years may be indicative of a trend away from credit card indebtedness. Perhaps these young people have seen how their elders have been affected, and learned.

Except for the most elderly, the drop in credit card debt overall is encouraging, and it may be improving even now, as the economy brightens. If the younger generation begins planning earlier in life for a debt-free retirement, they just may manage the American Dream that is eluding many of their parents and grandparents. 

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