Debt and the Difficult Choices Older Adults Have to Make

Related topics: Financial Planning, Financial

Today, more seniors are carrying debt into retirement than ever before, and the amount of debt burden has skyrocketed over the past decade. For many, just keeping pace with the cost of daily living is a challenge.

Senior couple discussing their finances with an advisor

A profile of senior households with debt

In 2015, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) surveyed aging network professionals on their clients' debt, and how it impacts these clients' economic security. The results of this survey, combined with data from several national surveys of consumer finances and debt, are featured in the issue brief, Older Adults & Debt: Trends, Trade-offs, and Tools to Help

According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, senior households with any debt increased from right around 50 percent in 1989, to just over 61 percent in 2013. Median total debt for older adult households with debt was $40,900 in 2013 — more than DOUBLE what it was in 2001.

Medical debt

Increasingly, medical debt poses the most significant barrier to economic well-being.

  • More than 84 percent of people aged 65+ are coping with at least one chronic condition, and often more as they age.
  • A study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that out-of-pocket medical expenditures in the five years prior to an individual's death totaled more than $38,000, leaving 1 in 4 seniors approaching bankruptcy.

Credit card debt

Another common source of debt among senior households is credit cards.

  • In 2001, approximately 27 percent of senior households held credit card balances; by 2013, more than 32 percent did.
  • One in four senior households with credit card debt had a balance of at least $7,200 in 2013.

Trade-offs in dealing with debt

The NCOA survey found that seniors often make trade-offs to save money in the short term that can be harmful to their long-term health and finances. Among aging network professionals surveyed:

  • 23 percent regularly encounter seniors who are forgoing needed home/car repairs, which increases the risk of accidents and falls — the leading cause of injuries among seniors.
  • 15 percent regularly encounter seniors who cut pills, which can limit their effectiveness.
  • 14 percent regularly see seniors skip meals, which can lead to nutrient deficiency.

Getting help with debt

NCOA has several resources that can help older adults manage and reduce their debt.

The EconomicCheckUp® tool has debt calculators and resources to help older adults find work, cut spending, and learn how to use their home equity.

BenefitsCheckUp® can help seniors find out whether they qualify for programs that pay for health care, prescriptions, food and more.


Source: The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Its vision is a just and caring society in which each of us, as we age, lives with dignity, purpose and security. And its goal is to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.