Debt has soared to record levels for older Americans, and it isn’t just because of mortgages
Alessandra Malito, MarketWatch
The financial crisis hit many Americans hard, but for seniors, the present is even worse.
Americans in their 60s held $2.16 trillion in debt during the second quarter of 2019, just short of the record $2.17 trillion they had during the first quarter, according to newly released data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on Tuesday. That’s significantly more than the $1.47 trillion they had during the second quarter of 2008, shortly after the Great Recession began.
Those who are 70 and older are in double the household debt collectively now than they were during the financial crisis in the late 2000s — $1.16 trillion in the second quarter, versus the $0.54 trillion 11 years ago.
People in their late teens through 20s as well as those between 30 and 39 are in just about the same financial position as those same age groups were during the recession, having both $0.92 trillion and $2.88 trillion in debt in the second quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2008, respectively. Forty-somethings are in $3.49 trillion of household debt this past quarter, down from $3.73 trillion during the spring of 2008.
Mortgages accounted for most household debt across the age groups, but especially for people in their 40s and beyond. The share of debt associated with home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, were highest among people in their 50s and 60s — a little more than a tenth of total household debt per age cohort, during the second quarter of 2019. HELOCs are essentially a second mortgage, but the loan is from the home’s current value. (A HELOC is different than a reverse mortgage, which requires no loan repayment and doesn’t have to be repaid until the home is sold.)
Student debt is a greater issue for borrowers in their 20s and 30s, but accounts for more than a fifth of household debt of those in their 50s. Student debt is increasingly a problem for Americans later in life — federal student debt grew $18 billion in just a few months’ time for Americans last year.
Debt can be crippling in old age, especially when people have retired and are living on a fixed income. Financial advisers typically suggest retiring with as little debt as possible — paying off a home, refraining from signing on to any loans for the education of children or loved ones — but it can be difficult to avoid. The key is to act swiftly and calmly. Seniors in debt shouldn’t run to “quick fixes,” which can be costly, like a payday lender, and should work with professionals and their lenders to create a repayment schedule that fits within their budget.
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