Our friends at the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently released some alarming news:

Families near or in retirement are falling deeper in debt, and the nation's oldest families -- those with family heads age 75 or older -- have substantially increased their debt levels, potentially putting their ability to finance their remaining retirement at risk, according to a study released today by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

Both housing debt and consumer debt levels are rising for elderly families. In the oldest age group, the percentage of income that debt payments represented more than doubled from 2001 to 2004, the study finds. It adds that rising debt could be the first sign that older Americans are not able to maintain their current standard of living and are taking on debt to do so.

Yikes, eh?

What's happening?
So, what's going on? Well, part of the problem relates to housing. Many older households, like younger households, have been taking advantage of what seemed to be easy money -- via refinancing. As housing values rose, people refinanced (which is often a smart thing to do) and took out some of their home's value in the process. The end result for many was less equity in their homes, longer repayment timelines, and sometimes, even higher mortgage payments.

Now that some home values are starting to drop, some people may find themselves owing more than their home is worth. That's not good, especially if they have to sell and move and don't have the time to wait for values to rise again.

Then there's nefarious credit card debt. Once you get sucked in and find yourself being charged 25% or more in interest, it's darn hard to dig yourself out. Watch what happens to $10,000 of debt over a few years:

Year Amount Owed
1 $10,000
2 $12,500
3 $15,625
4 $19,531
5 $24,414
10 $74,506
15 $227,374

Problems like these can kill your quality of life today, not to mention any hope you have of a comfortable old age. If you're already elderly, odds are that your income is at least somewhat limited, and so is your ability to dig yourself out.

There's hope!
Fortunately, there's hope. You can dig yourself out from under a pile of credit card debt. Here's proof you can pay off your debt -- and some get-out-of-debt guidance from our Credit Center.

These articles may also help:

You can also help yourself by becoming more proactive about your retirement plan. Don't just contribute occasional sums to a 401(k) plan and your IRA and hope for the best. Take some time to figure out just what you'll need in retirement and how you'll get there.

We'd love to help you with that via our Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which happens to be the retirement guidance source that I refer to most often. (You can check it out for free, and a free trial will give you access to all past issues.) It often features stories about people who retired early and who share their secrets, which can help you retire earlier -- or at least on time.

Here's a sampling of some very useful articles from past issues:

  • In the June 2006 issue, newsletter editor Robert Brokamp addressed international investing, rerecommending an international mutual fund that advanced some 50% since he first mentioned it back in December of 2004.
  • In the January 2006 issue, Robert tackled asset allocation and explained how we can "avoid Uncle Sam's grabby hands." He listed a host of popular investments, such as bonds and dividend-paying stocks, in order of tax efficiency.
  • In the May 2005 issue, readers were taught how to withdraw money prudently in retirement in order to make it last.
  • The October 2005 issue delved into dividends and offered some recommended dividend payers. (Some firms paying significant dividends today include Citigroup (NYSE:C), with a recent yield around 3.8%. Others include Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), at 3.2%, and AT&T (NYSE:T), at 4.1%.)

Here's to a happier portfolio! And, hey, consider forwarding this article to anyone whose financial future you care about. Just click on the "Email this Page" link near the top of the page.

Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation.

Selena Maranjian 's favorite discussion boards include Book Club , The Eclectic Library , Television Banter and Card & Board Games . She owns shares of Pfizer. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.