Where have the years gone? Nearly every 60-something person has wondered and worried about the passage of time. One minute, you’re starting a career and family, then seemingly in the blink of an eye, you’re preparing for retirement.
But for many senior citizens, there are more urgent questions. Where has the money gone? Was it even here in the first place?
Pamela Villarreal, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and an expert on retirement, economic growth and tax issues, said that just two decades ago, many seniors were debt free when they approached retirement. The key issue was whether they could outlive their money.
These days, the goal has shifted to simply making ends meet for the rest of their lives.
“The growth in debt among seniors is a bit concerning, especially when you consider the history,’’ Villarreal said.
According to an Experian 2018 report, the average total debt for an adult over the age of 60 was $70,633. The number is substantially less than the average national total debt of $93,446, but keep in mind most retired seniors cannot pay off this debt without the cash flow from a 40 hour a week job.
A survey from Consumer Finances said the number of older Americans (65 to 74 years old) having mortgages or home equity loan payments rose from 26% in 1989 to 57% in 2013 (the most recent year for available data). For those 75 and over, the figures have gone from 6% to 21% in the same time period.
Credit card bills have soared. The 60-79 age group had an average $5,970 balance in Q2 of 2019, compared to $2,100 in 1989 for just the 65-74 age group.
Seniors, like most of the population, have been struck hard by student loan debt. Regardless of whether the debt was taken on for their children, grandchildren or used to finance their own education, the fastest-growing demographic for educational loan balances features people over the age of 60, zooming more than 14-fold, from $6 billion in 2004 to $86 billion in 2019.
Senior Citizen’s Guide to Helping Yourself Out of Debt
For seniors in a difficult financial situation — or older Americans coming to the end of their working life — there are some practical strategies that could help prevent a crisis.
- Creating a Budget — Analyze your current spending habits, then examine income from retirement funds, pensions and Social Security. List all your debts and prioritize the order in which they should be paid off. Hint: start with the highest interest rates, such as an unsecured credit card debt.
- Considering Downsizing — Examine your lifestyle. You might need to decrease travel, sell your car and move to a smaller house or apartment. If you’re struggling to pay bills, some things just make sense. Do you really need to eat out all the time? Can you get by without the premium cable or satellite package?
- Don’t Fall Behind — Always pay the bills on time, even if it’s just the minimum payment. You don’t want higher interest rates and penalty fees to make the uphill climb even more steep.
- Protecting the Retirement Fund — It’s tempting to use the retirement fund to help pay off debts. Be careful. The money is usually taxable. When possible, find another way.
- Debt Consolidation Loan — Lenders will offer you loans that should be at interest rates below what you would pay on credit cards, but the lender often wants collateral such as a home or car to secure the loan. That makes this option a little risky. If you miss payments, that collateral is at risk of being foreclosed or repossessed.
- Debt Settlement — Usually chosen by people with very poor credit, there is an attempt to negotiate a “buyout” with the lender to settle the debt at a reduced rate. While there could be big savings realized, the damage to your credit report and credit score will last seven years. Also, some lenders refuse to accept debt settlement offers. Late payment penalties and interest payments should be factored into the overall cost of this option.
- Asking for Help — If you’re in over your head, why not turn to family or friends? In some instances, if a family member or friend is assigned power of attorney, that could help negotiate a lower debt payoff amount. It’s natural to hesitate in asking for such assistance, but this is where you could find an option you can actually afford. Also consider the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which can connect seniors to local resources.
- Taking over — Sometimes, there needs to be a “forced takeover’’ of a senior’s finances by one of their children. Consider that one in nine people over the age of 64 has Alzheimer’s disease, while 32% of people 85 and over have the disease. That group is ripe for being taken advantage of financially. Meanwhile, one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 has been victimized by financial fraud or abuse. Scams cost American seniors about $3 billion each year.
How to Budget Your Golden Years
In the short term, what is needed the most?
According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, the typical 65 and older senior household spends 35.4% percent of its total income on housing, 14.2% on transportation, 13.2% on healthcare, 12.4% on food and 5.1% on personal insurance (with 19.7% going to other diverse needs).
According to the Pension Rights Center, the median income in 2018 for seniors 65-and-over was $43,696 for households and $25,601 for individuals. Meanwhile, 12% of those 65 and older are living at the poverty level.
When the NCOA surveyed aging network professionals, it learned that seniors usually make a variety of “tradeoffs’’ in order to manage their debt. They include forgoing needed home or vehicle repairs (regularly encountered by 23.4% of those surveyed), cutting pills (14.9%), avoiding social engagements (14.9%), skipping medical appointments (14.5%), missing rent or mortgage payments (14.5%) and skipping meals (13.7%).
So, what’s the ultimate answer to financial assistance for seniors?
That’s obviously a multi-pronged question. Fortunately, there are numerous agencies, resources and education services that can help senior citizens deal with their debt in a proactive manner.
Assistant Programs for Seniors
There are numerous programs available for seniors who struggle with affordable housing, medical debt, lack of food, and finding employment.
Housing Help for Senior Citizens
The Congregate Housing Services program offers state subsidies and other support services. Qualifiers must have low or moderate income, while living in senior housing. Also required is the need for daily help with activities such as personal services, meals and housekeeping due to advanced age or chronic health conditions.
Rent assistance vouchers, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered by public housing agencies, are provided to qualifying seniors. The Section 202 voucher program was developed to help seniors live independently in safe and affordable housing. Individuals can get emergency rental assistance and along with support services such as cleaning, cooking and transportation.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), designed for seniors with limited income, helps to pay heating and cooling bills, along with some energy-related home repairs.
Link Up (or Lifeline), available to qualified low-income seniors, helps pay for the cost of basic local telephone services. There’s automatic eligibility for people who belong to Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Call the sales department of your local phone company.
Medical Debt Help for Senior Citizens
Medicare, a federal government social insurance program that began in 1965, serves about 52 million people by giving senior citizens comprehensive medical and dental care. It’s one of the longest-running programs that provides financial help for seniors.
It helps pay for bills involving hospitalization (Part A), outpatient services or physical therapy (Part B) and prescriptions (Part D). Seniors can apply for Part D benefits through the social service office or pharmaceutical companies that provide the prescription drugs. The medications will be offered to qualified seniors for free or at a reduced cost. There are also prescription savings discount cards, which reduce the costs.
- Medicare only pays for the first 80% of medical costs, so many seniors need help covering the remaining 20%, copayments or deductibles. Medicaid is available to qualified seniors with limited resources. It can be applied to inpatient and outpatient care, Medicare deductibles and the program’s premium. But it doesn’t cover nursing home care, personal care, prescription drugs, eyeglasses or preventative care.
- The Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is a Medicare/Medicaid program that provides care to seniors in the home. Some of its services include: Adult day primary care, dentistry, emergency services, home care, hospital care, laboratory/X-ray services, meals, medical specialty services, nursing home care, nutritional counseling and prescription drugs.
- Dental care can be limited unless a senior is enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan. But the Dental Lifeline Network (formerly the National Foundation of Dentistry for the Handicapped) offers services for people with disabilities, qualified seniors or at-risk patients. The national network has 15,000 volunteer dentists and 3,200 volunteer labs. For information, call 1-888-471-6334.
The most practical help? It’s probably deciphering the complex information and amount of options, while providing advice on how to best manage medical care on a fixed income.
Specialists with the Senior Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can help seniors with their health insurance benefits, medical bills, vouchers for prescriptions and their rights. The staff and volunteers, part of a federal program, can help in person or by telephone.
SHIP works with Medicare beneficiaries (including people under 65) and teaches them how to apply for benefits, while offering assistance for health insurance denials, appeals and grievances.
Health Insurance Counseling, similar to SHIP, has certified health insurance counselors that can explain Medicare, supplemental insurance, long term care insurance and other medical questions.
Medical Transportation, sometimes available at a minimal cost, is available through senior centers, churches and other charity organizations. For people 60 and over, it’s transportation to health care and doctor appointments.
For people 50 and over, there’s a Medicaid Waiver for Older Adults. Patients can remain in a community setting while requiring long-term care services. Normally, it would require their placement in a long-term care facility.
The Senior Medicare Hotline, a free service operated by a nonprofit, offers assessments and education about programs for paying their medical bills, which includes grants and agencies that accept applications for financial help.
Savings on medicines and other expenses are available through Extra Help, a federal government discount/savings program.
Attendant Services helps qualified persons who need ongoing health and medical assistance, while maintaining their independence. It allows them to complete their education or work while avoiding placing them in a special health care home or supervised setting. It’s based on the qualified person’s abilities, lifestyle and preferences.
Durable Medical Equipment (DME), available through government agencies and private organizations, provides items such as wheelchairs and walkers for free, loan or sale (at a reduced price).
Food Help for Senior Citizens
Through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), seniors with limited income receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, similar to a debit care, that can be used like cash to pay for food at grocery stores. More than 48 million Americans use SNAP. Learn more about SNAP eligibility and benefits.
There are numerous state and federally funded meal and nutrition education programs with outreach services, providing some of the most meaningful financial help for senior citizens. The Congregate Meal Site Program, largely funded by the federal Older Americans Act (OAA), is offered at senior centers, churches and senior housing facilities. It offers free nutritious hot meals, along with the chance to socialize with peers and attend workshops.
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), offers free healthy meals and groceries to seniors over 60. The program also offers nutrition information to promote good health.
For the homebound or people who can’t make it to a feeding site, there are delivered meals available (income limits apply). Meals on Wheels is the common moniker (although the service’s name might vary in some states). Volunteers deliver food and meals, while providing daily company and someone to check on the senior’s needs. Special holiday meals are generally available at
Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Some Meals on Wheels services provide free dog or cat food for seniors struggling to feed their pets. It allows more of a fixed income to be freed up for other household needs. Psychologists have pointed to the benefit of a healthy pet for seniors and the disabled, who receive companionship and an additional sense of purpose.
Employment Help for Senior Citizens
Individuals 55-and-older who are unemployed or looking for a new job can utilize the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which is funded by the federal government.
Case managers will review the individual’s employment history, physical capabilities, need for supportive services and potential for transition to a regular job. Everyone is offered a free physical examination and placement into job training opportunities.
Usually, candidates are placed into part time jobs. They learn new skills while earning money. It could transition into a full-time position.
Seniors run into a variety of issues as they age. When a financial or legal issue arises, it can be overwhelming. Senior citizens have options through various programs to help with tedious tasks that include legal assistance, help with taxes, and navigating social security.
It can be daunting simply to navigate all of the programs and services. Area Agency on Aging offices have an “Information and Assistance’’ service, sometimes known as an Eldercare Locator. It’s usually a clear point of entry into the aging network, providing telephone numbers and access points for services and government benefits. It also has helpful information for families and caregivers.
Don’t forget to inquire about a senior citizen discount whenever you shop, travel or buy insurance. Those 10% (or greater) discounts do come in handy.
With Senior Legal Assistance, seniors can receive counseling or representation for a low cost (or free). Only civil cases are handled. The Area Agencies on Aging likely will contract local attorneys, who give priority to issues such as government disability benefits, income maintenance and health care.
Check LegalHotLines.org, which has a state-by-state listing of available services for seniors.
Senior Citizens Taxes
The Internal Revenue Service tax code has some advantages for seniors. There’s a higher standard deduction amount for people 65 and over who don’t itemize deductions. There’s an additional tax credit for low-income or disabled seniors who file a 1040 or 1040A tax form.
For seniors who had made home improvements related to medical conditions or disabilities with a doctor’s recommendation, itemized deductions are available (read IRS Publication 502 at www.irs.gov). Additionally, IRS-trained volunteers provide free tax return preparation assistance to people 60 and over, low-income families and military families (search “Free Tax Preparation’’ at www.irs.gov).
Most Americans 65 and older receive Social Security. The average monthly benefit for a retired worker is $1,503. According to the Social Security Administration, 50% of married couples and 70% of unmarried people receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. Social Security benefits represent 33% of the Income for the elderly.
For those whose only income is Social Security, there is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal benefit for people 65 and over, the disabled and the blind. The average monthly benefit for an individual is $783 and $1,175 for a couples.
Warning Signs: When to Take Over Your Parents Finances
There are obvious warning signs when parents are no longer up to the financial task. There’s lots of unopened mail piling up. They are becoming forgetful about cash, while having difficulty with bill paying or balancing their checkbook. Creditors are calling. New purchases (often unneeded from the Internet or a television infomercial) start showing up.
If you belong to the Sandwich Generation, it’s wise to integrate yourself into your parents’ financial picture as early as possible. That makes it more seamless when the time is right to take over.
What are the priorities?
- Account for Everything — Assets, liabilities, debts and income. You need the complete picture. It could be a complicated process, so utilize tax returns and credit reports.
- Evaluate the Bills — Make sure they’re not overextended, perhaps having bills past due or in collections. Then create a budget and a spending plan. If the situation is worse than expected, visit a free credit counseling service from a nonprofit agency.
- Get the Authority — You need to be granted Power of Attorney. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has published a series of guides to help people trying to manage someone else’s funds.
- Document Everything — Every move you make. Every single one. Write it down. When there’s a paper trail, it eliminates potential hostility and second-guessing.
For seniors who are handling their own affairs, there’s a basic rule of thumb: Get educated!
“I think seniors are generally aware of programs, but they tend to lack detail on them,’’ Villarreal said. “They may purchase a long-term care policy to help protect their assets, but they may have no idea what it covers.
“Things like reverse mortgages are also complicated and can take seniors by surprise. I also think that few are aware of free credit counseling during times when they really need objective help.’’
Financial Education/Credit Counseling for Senior Citizens
Yes, there are even more financial services that can provide help for senior citizens in debt.
- In some communities, AARP offers Daily Money Management (DMM) programs that provide financial assistance for low-income older or disabled senior citizens. It helps with paying bills, budgeting, negotiating with creditors, balancing a checkbook and avoiding scams and fraud.
- The NCOA’s EconomicCheckUp, a free online service, helps seniors to reduce debt, find work, cut spending and learn about using their home equity. Learn more at EconomicCheckup.org. The NCOA also offers BenefitsCheckUp, a free online service to help limited-income seniors. It includes more than 2,000 public and private benefits programs. Learn more at BenefitsCheckUp.org.
As Villarreal suggested earlier, it’s always wise to utilize the free credit counseling services from nonprofit agencies. There are also debt management programs that usually carry a $25-$50 monthly fee, but lower your interest rates and consolidate your bill payments for credit card bills, medical bills, department store cards and other lines of credit.
These services should help you reduce monthly payments and fees. Consistent good-faith payments will reflect favorably on your credit score. If you follow the resources above, you can be well on your way to living debt free.
- Campbell, J., (2013, 13 November), When and How To Take Control of Your Parents’ Finances. Retrieved from: https://www.moneymanagement.org/community/blogs/blogging-for-change/2013/november/when-and-how-to-take-control-of-your-parents-finances.aspx
- NA, (2016), Need Help Paying Bills. Retrieved from: http://www.needhelppayingbills.com/html/senior_assistance_programs.html
- Jenkins, J., (2012), AARP: Your Guide to Public Benefits. Retrieved from: http://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/income/info-2012/public-benefits-guide-senior-assistance1.html
- Alderman, J., (2010), Practical Help for Seniors. Retrieved from: http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com/personalfinance/experts/practicalmoneymatters/columns_2010/0625_senior_tips.php
- Hawkins, C., (2014), Helpful Resources for Seniors Surviving on Social Security, Retrieved from: http://www.seniorliving.org/retirement/resources-surviving-social-security/