Seniors Are Spending More on Mortgages, Credit Cards

February 14, 2014
Christine DeGangi

Everyone has a different dream about retirement. Perhaps yours involves travel, taking the grandkids to museums, moving to your favorite part of the country or dedicating more time to your hobbies.

Debt likely isn't in the plans - no one dreams of living in debt, of course, but it's increasingly a reality for older Americans. A new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis shows that senior citizens are taking on more credit card, mortgage and home equity debt than ever.

Spending in Your 60s

In the past two decades, the share of Americans older than 65 with a mortgage or home equity loan has jumped, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the borrowers can afford these debts. In that time, Americans have started working and living longer, so it makes sense that financial habits would change, as well. (A Gallup poll puts the average retirement age at 57 in 1991 and 61 in 2013, and average life expectancy was 75.3 in 1989 and 78.64 in 2011, the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

As the NCPA paper notes, most seniors entered retirement debt-free 20 years ago.

In 1989, 21% of 65- to 74-year-olds had a mortgage or home equity loan, compared to 37% in 2010, according to the NCPA report How Seniors Are Spending Their Money. Among those 75 and up, that number increased from 6% to 21%.

Similarly, average credit card balances in these age brackets increased by several thousand dollars. The 65- to 74-year-olds carry $6,000 on average (up from $2,100 in 1989), and the 75-and-older crowd emerged as a new segment of credit card users. They didn't have an average balance in 1989, but by 2010 it grew to $4,600.

When it comes to what they're buying, housing makes up the largest chunk of seniors' expenses, but the fastest growing spending areas for 65- to 75-year-olds are recreational equipment and pets and hobbies.

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Save So You Can Spend

Seniors may be taking on more debt, but it's important to remember that debt isn't inherently evil. Using credit cards or a home equity line of credit are good ways to maintain your credit history as you age and perhaps find yourself using credit less frequently than you used it.

The thing to focus on is how those obligations compare to your income, because any debt is bad if you can't afford it. Managing your expected expenses requires planning early on, and strong savings goes hand-in-hand with good credit. Both are lifelong parts of personal finance.

Those higher credit card balances among senior citizens could mean a few things. Either they're racking up larger unpaid balances, ultimately paying more for purchases made with the cards by accruing interest on those balances, or they're using credit cards more often but are avoiding debt by paying off the balances each month.

Establishing good credit behaviors before you reach retirement age will help you comfortably enjoy your post-work years. To see where you stand now, there are free tools out there that can help you -'s Credit Report Card gives you two credit scores and the five major factors that determine your scores. The breakdown allows you to identify areas you need to improve in order to better your credit.

Just don't sacrifice saving as a way to improve your credit scores. Yes, it's important to pay down any existing debt, but if you're not planning for the future, your high scores will be short-lived.

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