Personal Finance

Pay off our debt? Not likely, say some

Peter Dazeley | Getty Images

The golden years are going to feel a bit tarnished for almost one in five Americans.

In a personal finance survey published today, 18 percent of the respondents said they expect to be in debt for the rest of their lives. That is double the percentage who expected that in May 2013, the last time the survey was conducted.

Mortgage delinquencies dropped for the eleventh consecutive quarter, to 3.36 percent, in the third quarter of 2014, and credit card delinquency was at 1.34 percent, according to TransUnion. Credit card indebtedness has increased moderately since the 2013 survey, Schulz said.

Read MoreFor many, credit card debt outweighs savings

In contrast, student loan debt rose from an aggregate of $390 billion at the end of 2005 to $966 billion at the end of 2012, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Average student loan debt topped $30,000 in six states, according to the Project on Student Debt.

"We've all seen the student loan debt numbers, and credit card debt is increasing, and even though the job market is improving it's certainly not humming along, and there is data about people's salaries not growing quite as quickly as people had hoped," said Matt Schulz, senior analyst at "You just wonder if it has all come together to create this unease."

Read More7 ways to stop student loans from ruining your life

Generations of student loan debt
Generations of student loan debt

Survey respondents who expect to pay off their debts anticipate doing so at an average age of 53. But in addition to the 18 percent who expect to owe money forever, another 25 percent expect to be in debt until at least age 61.

Older respondents are more likely to believe their debt will be with them forever. Some 31 percent of those over age 65 expect to be lifelong debtors, compared to 22 percent of those aged 50 to 64 and just 6 percent of millennials aged 18 to 29.

"The more years you have left, the more likely you are to have a chance to get rid of that debt," Schulz said. "I think some of that can just be chalked up to the optimism and positivity of youth," since after all, millennials are the ones most likely to be holding student loans. Schulz speculated that perhaps some older borrowers are assuming responsibility for children's student loans, and that is adding to their pessimism.

Read MoreStudent loan debt burdens more than young people

The apparent concern about indebtedness does not appear to be getting in the way of holiday shopping. As of the first week in December, when the survey was conducted, 38 percent of the respondents had taken on debt for holiday shopping – but 55 percent to pay it back in a month, and just 5 percent expect to have that debt in a year.

"Given that more than half of the people who incur debt say they can pay it off in a month, and 74 percent can pay in three months, that actually shows some restraint," Schulz said. "Instead of going out and going crazy, they are trying to be responsible and to keep those debts down."

Even if retirement will be tarnished, that restraint at least could give the holidays a little sparkle.