Oh, to be young and in debt.
Your money may be as tight as your skin, but the true gift of your youth is one of the most powerful tools of financial planning: time. To be a senior in retirement and in debt, however, all you may possess is a feeling of powerlessness as that gift slips away. Combine that state of mind with the emotions that may have gotten you into debt in the first place, and you’ve created quite the financial quicksand.
Several years ago, Francine Bostick, a now-retired 62-year-old custodial manager in Manhattan, Kan., and her husband, James, 74, found themselves with lots of stuff and more than $120,000 in credit-card debt. With easy access to cheap credit, thinking twice about buying a new TV or helping her adult children with their expenses did not happen.
“We thought as long as you could pay” the minimum, “everything was cool,” she said.
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But things changed quickly and were cool no more. Her husband developed dementia. Simultaneously, card lenders started raising required minimum payments. Bostick ended up paying for their groceries and utilities with even more credit. “I was praying and asking God, ‘What do I need to do?’”
The number of Americans ages 60 and older in debt is alarming. A recent report by the AARP’s Public Policy Institute and the research organization Demos revealed that Americans older than 50 carried substantially more debt on credit cards — an average balance of $8,278 — than those younger than 50, whose average balance was $6,258. The Employee Benefit Research Institute also found recently that total debt payments as a portion of income for families headed by people 75 or older had shot up to 7.1 percent in 2010, from 4.5 percent in 2007.
Much of the credit-card debt that older Americans have is tied to medical expenses; however, there’s a tangled and difficult generational psychology going on as well, putting too many seniors at financial risk just at a time when debt should be done with.
Amy Traub, a senior-policy analyst at Demos, reveals one situation in which emotional ties lead to financial knots. “Nearly a quarter of those aged 50 or above report that they gave money to or paid the debt of relatives, which added to their credit- card balance,” she said.
Those apron strings can be like iron bonds. Connie Stone, a certified financial planner with Steppingstone Financial in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is 55 and works with many retirees and near-retirees who just can’t let go.
“A lot of it is genuine love, and some people find it’s easier to show love through giving material things,” she said. She sees parents who take on all kinds of student loans for their children — even if they’re struggling financially themselves — as well as giving down payments for homes, cosigning on credit cards and paying for $40,000 weddings.
Eleanor Blayney, 61, a certified financial planner who is consumer advocate at CFP Board, a nonprofit organization that advocates for professional planning, pins it on a confluence of events now plaguing her whole generation. “We’re overinvested in our children,” she said. Combine that with the rough job market that young adults find themselves in now and baby boomers being much more comfortable with debt, she said, and the result is “a phenomenon.”
Bostick’s spending included helping her adult children as well as overcompensating for them. “My daughter was in college and didn’t have medical insurance so I helped her out. Sometimes I bought stuff for my kids they didn’t even ask for.”
Why risk your own future to buy grown-up children things they do not need?
“Part of it went back to when they were young,” she said. “We didn’t have much. I felt like I needed to get them stuff to repay them.” The additional need to help with education costs means that many seniors are adding their own slice to the more than $1 trillion in student-loan debt. A 2012 report from the New York Federal Reserve found that student-loan borrowers ages 60 and older made up 5.3 percent of total borrowers, and 4.8 percent were carrying past-due balances.
Gail Cunningham, 64, vice president of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, also notes that spending out of loneliness is common in this age group and that the need for a connection can lead to “that feeling of generosity — to a fault.” Requests for help to the nonprofit foundation from borrowers ages 65 and older has risen 4 percent from 2009 to 2011.
Should the children of Depression-era children have learned from their penny-pinching parents? Dale Atkins, 64, a psychologist and author, conducts seminars for older people on age and wealth. She says much of this is tied to the consumerism and youth that so enthralls our society.
“When you’re a person that doesn’t have money in a society that values money,” she says, “you feel diminished. Especially when you’re older.”
To counter those pressures, Atkins encourages seniors and senior couples to write down their legacy: “What was our life about and how are we going to invest in the future?”
She also feels strongly that because many bad financial choices are made because of pressure or guilt from family, people should not look only to family for help. Instead, they should look beyond family to feel valued and valuable for who they are, not what they provide. “Part of that is being part of a community, a neighborhood, a synagogue, a church.”
Practical calculations can also work to take off any blinders and help develop a plan of action. Stone presents clients with dual financial pictures for parents still contributing to grown children, to the detriment of their retirement plans.
“I give them two scenarios. This is what happens if you continue and here’s what you’ll have if you don’t,” she said. And when that does not do the trick, Blayney reminds parents that they are not being selfish, protecting their money: “It’s a gift to children when a parent has enough money to take care of themselves.”
If that is the case, then last year, Bostick gave her children an enormous gift. The Bosticks were named “2012 Client of the Year” by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling for pulling themselves out of six figures of credit-card debt in five years with the help of a local affiliate, Housing and Credit Counseling of Topeka, Kan.
“The first thing we were told was that we qualify for bankruptcy,” Bostick said, “But if I had filed bankruptcy, who’s to say I wouldn’t be in debt again? I would not have learned a lesson.”
They cut household expenses and spending and took on second jobs — Bostick working 12-hour days into her 60s — to not only break even every month but to put $2,496 every month into paying off their debt. Five years later, they even have a saving account.
Bostick’s only regret is that with advancing dementia, her husband cannot fully comprehend their accomplishment. When the final credit-card bill was paid, she said, “I was jumping up and down. He just looked at me and said, ‘Yay.’ ”