- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

CHICAGO | Retirement is no longer the debt-free zone it used to be.

Rising health care and energy costs and the phasing out of traditional pensions have been making that widely sought goal tougher to reach for some time. Now the recession and market slide have compounded the challenge, taking giant chunks out of home values, stock portfolios and job opportunities for older workers.

Zero debt is hardly a must. Some retirees are content paying off mortgages they have well under control. Others like using credit to buy investment real estate for a second home, or a houseboat, or charge a special trip.

But all the additional cost burdens provide an emphatic reminder that, generally, the less debt the better for seniors living on limited fixed incomes.

A sobering example of what can happen when crushing debt overwhelms can be found in a poignant scene that plays out all too often at counseling offices in such places as Rapid City, S.D.

Women in their 70s and 80s, sometimes on walkers, show up for their required counseling sessions regularly at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Black Hills as they prepare to file for bankruptcy.

Debt adviser Terry Mills says hundreds of retirees have gone that route since 2005, making them by far the biggest demographic group. Most had limited assets to deal with their medical bills.

“It’s very sad,” said Mr. Mills, the agency’s education and community outreach manager. “They worked their whole lives, and here they come and they have to file bankruptcy — this is how you end your life. It just tears your heart out when people come in here on walkers.”

Americans 55 and older have been the largest age group to file for bankruptcy recently, accounting for 23 percent of the more than 1 million filings in 2007, according to the AARP. Older seniors are even more vulnerable, with bankruptcy more than quadrupling for those ages 75 to 84.

Even aside from the last resort of bankruptcy, the level of mortgage and credit card debt among retirees is worrisome.

Forty-three percent of people ages 65 to 74 had a mortgage in 2007, carrying median housing debt of $69,000, according to government data compiled by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That was up sharply from 32 percent in 2004 and 18 percent in 1992.

Credit card debt is an increasing problem for seniors with limited or modest resources. A study of low- and middle-income households by the New York think tank Demos last year found that credit card debt had risen 26 percent among those 65 and older since 2005. The respondents in that age group reported an average of $4,000 of credit card debt for medical expenses alone.

Those who thought they had built up a comfortable level of assets for retirement are feeling the squeeze, too.

Ginnie Curran, 65, a retired teacher from San Diego, always expected to be debt-free in retirement. As she prepared to retire in 2003, she envisioned annual trips to New York for Broadway shows and to Hawaii, even sometimes paying for her son and daughter to accompany her.

But unforeseen circumstances have chipped away at her money and added to her debt.

Her investment holdings plunged 30 percent in the dot-com implosion not long before her retirement. The condo she bought for $580,000 in 2005 after selling her house has fallen 10 percent in value. She carries a $215,000 mortgage that translates into more than $1,800 in monthly housing costs.

And despite a seemingly adequate monthly income of $4,200 (after taxes) from her teacher’s pension, unanticipated costs on everything from home repairs to doctors visits cause her to keep running up her credit card, which she periodically dips into her stocks to pay.

Now Ms. Curran, who is divorced, is on a tight budget so she won’t exhaust her savings over a long retirement. Those yearly pleasure trips? She’s been once each to New York and Hawaii in six years. She lives comfortably enough, but it’s not what she expected.

“I still feel very blessed and grateful for what I have,” she said. “But I’m surprised and disappointed that I am not debt-free.”

Her cautionary words to future retirees: You don’t know how your retirement is going to work out, from market drops and other setbacks to unanticipated medical costs that might not be covered. So don’t make any optimistic assumptions about debt.

Ms. Curran’s financial adviser, Rick Brooks of Family Wealth Advisers in Solana Beach, Calif., says an unfortunate number of investors such as Ms. Curran began this decade with retirement plans built on asset-return assumptions that proved far too rosy.

“She’s not an emergency case, but she’s one of those people who it wouldn’t take much to push over the edge,” said the certified financial planner, who has worked with his client to rein in her spending.

How much debt, then, is acceptable for retirees living on modest fixed income?

The advice will vary widely depending on Social Security and pension income and many other factors.

A general guideline is to stay far under the spending limits widely recommended for homeowners: No more than 30 percent of your monthly income should go to housing and no more than another 20 percent to pay other debts.

Paying off a mortgage before retirement, and avoiding rent, too, is highly advisable when possible.

But the most important thing is to keep nondiscretionary expenses to a minimum when you retire. You want to have as much flexibility as possible with cash flow.

Failing to plan wisely can leave you with more debt, or perhaps a reverse mortgage, as your only alternative.

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