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Debt and the Silver-Haired Set

College kids, stranded travelers, and Sex and the City stars aren't the only people who consider a credit card their lifeline. The silver-haired set is relying on plastic more than ever before.

A decade ago, just 18% of Americans over the age of 65 carried an outstanding balance on a credit card, according to SRI Consulting Business Intelligence. Today nearly half of all card-carrying seniors carry unpaid balances month to month.

Oh, but that's not all. Credit-card debt is behind an alarming trend reported by Demos (PDF available for download), a nonpartisan public policy group in New York City. It found that bankruptcy among senior citizens has increased 217% in the past decade.

Though their debt levels lag behind those of younger generations, the amount of money the elderly borrow is creeping upward. The average credit card debt of those 65 and older was about $4,000 (in 2001) -- an 89% increase since 1992. Those headed into retirement -- ages 55 to 64 -- and carrying credit card debt reported that almost one-third of their family income went to debt payments.

It's not keggers or kicky Prada pumps driving Grams and Gramps into debt. Necessities such as prescription drugs and groceries -- and even doling out money to struggling relatives -- are behind the rising rate of debt among the elderly. With health-care costs on the rise, and interest rates on income-preserving investments like CDs on the downslide, items that were once well within their fixed-income budget have become unaffordable. And the picture doesn't get any clearer as the aging population lives longer, outliving their retirement savings.

For those whose income-earning years are but a fuzzy memory, it can be hard to find ways to cut back -- or earn more. And the temptations of borrowing are ripe -- especially if you own your home and have a good, long-standing credit history. Still, the same rules of credit management we preach for the younger set apply to senior citizens:

  • Spend less money than you bring in. (That's easier said than done, we know, but it's the magic bullet of savings.)

  • If you must carry a balance, negotiate a lower interest rate with your lender, or find a better deal.

  • Lay out a plan to pay off your debts. Our Get Out of Debt Guide can help.

  • Ask Junior for a loaner -- or consider other sources to supplement your income.

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