Personal Finance

Not-So-Golden Years: Over 75, Burdened By Debt

Allison Linn, NBC News
Mark Bowden | E+ | Getty Images

The golden years are supposed to be a time when you can live off the wealth you've accumulated over a lifetime, not feel like you have to take on more debt to make ends meet.

But a new batch of research shows that Americans ages 75 and over appear to have grown more burdened by debt in recent years, and experts say a likely culprit is medical expenses.

A new analysis of government data, released earlier this month by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, found that between 2007 and 2010 people who are 75 and older were more likely to have debt, and their average debt levels increased significantly.

That's in stark contrast to other older Americans in their 50s and 60s, who generally saw debt levels stabilize during that period.

In general, the good news is that people ages 75 and older are much less likely to have debt, and generally carry far less debt, than other older Americans. But Craig Copeland, a senior research associate with EBRI and the report's author, said it was still troubling to see that the trend for that group was toward increasing, rather than decreasing, debt burdens.

"It really looked like something wasn't going well for them," Copeland said.

He suspects that many Americans who are 75 and older have few options but to take on debt when a big unexpected expense arises, because many are living on fixed retirement incomes and don't work. That means they can't, say, work a few extra hours or take on a second job if they need to pay for something.

That unexpected expense may be health-related. Although most older Americans are covered by Medicare, Copeland noted that many are still on the hook for co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses.

That means a person with a limited income can have their finances thrown into disarray by one unexpected event, such as a broken hip that requires significant co-pays or the sudden need for a very expensive prescription that isn't fully covered.

"In a lot of cases it seems to be that health care is a particularly vexing issue," he said.

The percentage of people 75 and above who had debt grew from 31.2 percent in 2007, the year the nation went into recession, to 38.5 percent in 2010, a year after the recession officially ended, according to the EBRI's analysis of Census data. The average amount of debt for those with debt also more than doubled, from $13,665 in 2007 to $27,409 in 2010.

The debt loads were far greater for people in their 50s and 60s, but the trend lines were far less troubling. The percentage of people ages 55 to 64 who held debt fell from 81.7 percent to 77.6 percent. For people ages 65 to 74, the percentage holding debt held steady at about 65 percent.

The average debt for 55- to 64-year-old debtholders fell from $112,075 in 2007 to $107,060 in 2010. For people ages 65 to 74, average debt fell from $72,922 in 2007 to $70,875 in 2010.

It makes sense for younger people to have more debt because they are still paying off big expenses, like houses, and they also are more likely to be bringing home a paycheck. By the time you reach your mid-70s, many would expect to have paid off the house and retired from regular work.

For people 75 and older, Copeland said his research showed that both median credit card and housing debt increased for those who had those types of debt.

Lucia Dunn, an economist at The Ohio State University, said her more recent research also has shown that older Americans have been taking on more credit card debt in recent years. She also suspects that unexpected medical expenses are a key problem for that group.

But in general, she said the really troubling finding she's seeing is that younger Americans appear to be taking on more debt than previous generations, and paying it off at slower rates.

That could mean that today's young people have even bigger problems than their parents and grandparents when they reach age 75 and older.

"The elderly are taking it in (but) not as fast as the younger ones," she said. "The really young cohorts are really digging a hole for themselves."