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According to USA Today, Rodney Brooks, Aug. 12, 2014, whether it’s credit card debt, student debt, or mortgage debt — is emerging as a serious threat to a successful retirement for thousands of Americans.

“We saw this huge refinance boom in the 2000s,” says Katherine Dean, head of wealth planning at Wells Fargo Private Bank. “There’s also the trend of people buying homes later in life and buying a second home late in life. We are seeing older Americans saddled with debt.”

In fact, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the percentage of homeowners age 65 and older carrying mortgage debt increased from 22% in 2001 to 30% in 2011. Among those aged 75 and older, the rate more than doubled, from 8.4% to 21.2%.

Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist and thought leader for AARP’s Life Re-Imagined, said that debt can really take a toll on people, especially retirees.

“Debt is a constant source of stress, and in particular, chronic stress, for many people — especially those who are reaching retirement or in retirement,” she says. “For too many Americans, retirement is where people are on a budget and have to modify what they spend. When you go in with debt, whether it’s a debt you know about or is unplanned debt, it just causes a huge amount of stress.”

The recession exacerbated the debt problem among retirees, says Robert Fragasso, principal at Fragasso Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh. “People make indiscriminate financial decisions,” he says. “They are unplanned, and their results are sometimes negative or catastrophic.”

A closer look at the debt issues:

Mortgage Debt

It’s one of the big questions going into retirement. Should I pay off my mortgage, even if I have to dip into my retirement funds?

The answer: It depends. The CFPB says the median mortgage debt for seniors increased 82% from 2001 to 2011, from $43,300 to $79,000. But, “The answer is not how much debt,” says Ron Weiner, president, and CEO of RDM Financial Group. “The answer is more complicated and depends on your tax bracket and the size of your mortgage payment,” he says. Not all of the decision is rational. “Some people feel it is emotionally comforting to pay off their mortgage. But that’s not necessarily the right answer.”

But there are some clearly bad choices. Mike Woomer, senior vice president at Fort Pitt Capital Group, says a client refinanced a mortgage for 20 years at age 58. “He’s not going to pay it off until he’s 78,” he says.

Credit Card Debt

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, older Americans are also accumulating more credit card debt. The group says the average credit card balance for Americans 65 to 74 was $6,000 in 2010, up from $2,100 in 1989. For those 75 and older, the average balance went from virtually nothing in 1989 to $4,600 in the same period.

“We would advise our clients to not carry credit card debt (into retirement) and pay the balances,” says Tom Mayper, executive vice president at RDM Financial Group in Westport, Conn. “Older people living on a fixed income can really get themselves in trouble paying a high-interest rate that is not deductible.”

In these days of low savings rates, retirees don’t understand that paying off a 16% credit card balance is like earning 16%, says Weiner. “They are better off paying the debt. Their costs go down.”

There’s some evidence that people are starting to be better about credit card debt. “We have seen a downtick in credit card debt,” says Dean. “But you also see increases in other debt, like auto loans. For a couple that is not saving enough, it can be a little bit scary. How are these folks going to be able to afford retirement?”

“Multiple credit cards are not the ally of the financial planner or the client,” says Greg Smith, managing director and senior financial planner at the Wise Investor Group in Reston, Va.

Carolyn Secor P.A. focuses its practice in the areas of Bankruptcy and Foreclosure Defense in Clearwater, Florida. For more information, go to our web site or call 727-335-7151.