Senior debt: A problem

Life After 50

September 08, 2002|By Claire Hughes | By Claire Hughes,New York Times News Service

Helen Quirini, like many people who lived through the Great Depression, is loathe to live beyond her means.

But the 82-year-old resident of Rotterdam, N.Y., also exhibits an attitude about money that has become increasingly common among seniors -- one that embraces some debt.

"I use the credit card," Quirini said. "But I know, from my income, how much I can afford to use every month."

A growing number of seniors are living with debt, and the debt they are carrying is bigger than ever. In 2000, 59 percent of households headed by people 65 or older had outstanding debt, with the average debt among that group totaling $23,000, according to SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, a research firm in Princeton, N.J. That's up from 35 percent of households in that category with debt in 1992, and an average debt of $8,000.

The total average debt figure includes debt from credit cards, home and car loans, and margin accounts from brokerage firms. The average credit card balance carried by seniors also rose, from $1,280 in 1992 to $1,897 in 2000--- an increase of 48 percent.

The majority of older people with debt are like Quirini: They are seniors who, unlike the generation before them, have grown accustomed to using loans and credit to manage their finances, experts say.

But there also are people in their 70s and 80s struggling to make ends meet, as their fixed incomes are outpaced by escalating prices for medicine and food. Financial consultants say they are seeing more older people than ever get into trouble with debt.

Marty Gordon, a branch manager of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central New York, has seen growing numbers of seniors spending up to half their income on credit card balances.

Others have senior clients who have had to go back to work to pay off what they owe. The counseling service is a nonprofit organization that helps people reorganize their finances and pay off debt.

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