Americans certainly aren't strangers to debt, with the average U.S. household carrying over $15,000 in credit card debt, $168,000 in mortgage debt, and $48,000 in student loan debt. But it's not just young Americans who owe heaping sums of money. A 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts report confirms that 80% of baby boomers (today's 51 to 70-year-olds) and 56% of retired members of the silent generation (today's 71- to 91-year-olds) have at least one form of debt. It's therefore no wonder that when asked about their prospects for paying off what they owe, a good 20% Americans responded that they expect to take their debt with them to the grave. Talk about bleak.

The dangers of debt, in life and in death

Before we talk about dying in debt, let's talk about its precursor: retiring in debt. While those who enter retirement with debt aren't necessarily doomed to die without having paid it off, they're less likely to recover than those who eliminate debt during their working years. And entering retirement in debt is a dangerous prospect. Many retirees find themselves strapped for cash, which makes the idea of paying off debt even less feasible. Plus, debt can be stressful, which is not what you need in your old age.

If you don't eliminate debt before you retire, you risk dying in debt, which can impact the assets you ultimately leave your heirs. Though your beneficiaries may not be liable to pay your outstanding debts, once you pass, the ownership of your debt transfers to your estate, at which point assets may need to be sold to pay off your remaining debt. In other words, if you're hoping to leave an inheritance for your children, it may be reduced depending on the type of debt you leave behind.

Furthermore, if you live in a community property state, dying in debt could impact your spouse. Under community property law, debt incurred during marriage by one spouse is also the other's responsibility. This means that if you rack up credit card debt in your name and die without having paid if off, then your spouse will likely be liable for that debt after you pass. And that's not the sort of legacy you want to leave behind.

The high cost of debt

If you're wondering why debt is a bad thing, here's a little scenario to consider. Say you're carrying a $10,000 balance on your credit card and pay it off over the course of three years, which is faster than what many borrowers can manage for an amount that high. At 12% interest (a fair assumption given today's rates), by the time you're done making payments, you'll have lost about $2,000 to interest charges. And if you take 10 years to wipe out that debt, instead of paying $2,000 in interest, you'll wind up forking over more like $7,000. Ouch.

In other words, the longer you take to pay off your debt, the more you'll end up paying for it. And the same holds true with a mortgage. Though mortgage debt is considered the good kind, the sooner you pay off your home loan, the more you'll save on interest over time. Even if you've already factored your mortgage costs into your monthly budget, it never hurts to get ahead on those payments so you can enter retirement mortgage-free.

Digging out of that hole

Paying off debt is no easy feat, but it can be done, especially if you still have a regular source of income. Start by paying off bad debt first -- specifically, your credit card with the highest interest rate. From there, try chipping away at other forms of debt, like your mortgage or student loans. One mortgage trick that works well is taking your current monthly payment, dividing it in half, and paying it every two weeks. After a year, you'll have made the equivalent of one extra monthly payment, which, over time, can cut years off your mortgage and save you thousands of dollars in interest.

If you're already retired and don't have many options for generating extra cash, your only choice may be to cut back on spending. In that regard, even small changes can make a difference. Skipping one restaurant meal each week can save a couple over $100 in just a month's time, while big changes, such as downsizing your home, can free up hundreds of dollars each month. You might also consider selling valuables like artwork or jewelry to pay down your debt.

No matter what approach you take to tackling your debt, the key is to make it a priority. Paying off debt takes time, and the sooner you get started, the better your chances of becoming debt-free at some point during your lifetime.