We would all enter retirement with a home we own free and clear, at least $1 million in our 401(k), and zero debt to our names, if we lived in an ideal world.
Financial reality looks substantially different for many near and current retirees. Baby boomers carried an average credit card balance of $5,804 and $95,607 in total nonmortgage debt (including credit cards, store cards, personal loans, student debt, and other nonmortgage accounts) in 2021, according to the credit bureau Experian. Baby boomer homeowners carried an average mortgage debt of $182,247.
Carrying consumer debt into retirement will either reduce the monthly cash flow available to spend on priorities like health care, travel, and leisure activities or will necessitate drawing down retirement accounts faster than planned, creating the possibility of running out of money or facing significant lifestyle changes to make ends meet. And it is hard to get ahead when interest rates on debt outpace earnings on retirement investments. The stock market’s historic average annual return is a far cry from the average credit card rate.
Financial planner Benjamin S. Offit, partner with Clear Path Advisory in Pikesville, Maryland, said it is ideal for retirees to have all debt paid off by retirement, but especially “bad debt” such as high interest credit cards. But if one needs to carry any type of debt into retirement, it needs to be reflected in a financial plan that makes room to have enough income in retirement while paying off the amounts owed. (Related: Good versus bad debt)
How to approach debt right before retirement
Workers who are rapidly approaching the end of their working years and want to get out of debt but are still saving for retirement may need to work longer, live on less, or make some sort of sacrifice to get the debt paid off before retirement, Offit said, unless it is possible to safely and securely pay off debt during retirement. Near retirees need to make sure they have enough capital and income so that their money outlives them instead of the other way around. (Calculator: How much to retire?)
Paying off remaining debts strategically can help.
Kai Stinchcombe, chief executive officer and founder of True Link, a financial services firm that helps advise retirees, said that in general, it is best to pay down high-rate debt as fast as possible, but for low-rate debt such as a mortgage, it is sometimes smarter to pay it down gradually. If you are choosing between paying down a mortgage faster or contributing money to an IRA — or leaving money in an IRA rather than withdrawing it to pay for your home — you will often end up ahead by prioritizing retirement savings.
“If your IRA grows 6 percent that year and your mortgage interest rate is 4 percent, for every dollar you put into savings instead of paying down debt, you'll end up with more money as a result,” Stinchcombe said.
Credit card debt vs saving
But it rarely makes sense to save rather than pay down credit card debt. “Credit card debt is the worst. Pay it off right away,” he said. (Learn more: Handling credit card debt)
Another reason to make paying down the mortgage a low priority is if the loan has a fixed rate and you are still getting the mortgage interest tax deduction, said Rebecca Pavese, CPA, a financial planner and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group’s Atlanta office. “That said, you may consider refinancing to a shorter term, lower interest rate mortgage if your cash flow will allow for the payments. If you can’t afford your mortgage payments when you retire, it’s critical to consider downsizing or moving to an area with a lower cost of living,” she added.
Of course, making such a move depends on the interest rate environment at the time of your approaching retirement. (Related: How higher interest rates affect consumers)
When it comes to student loan debt taken out for children’s educational expenses, “it might be time to pass the debt to them if they have established careers and are capable of making the payments themselves,” Pavese said.
Paying off debt during retirement
For those who have already retired but are weighed down by debt payments, one way to pay them off is to use proceeds from retirement plan distributions, Social Security income, or pension income. Tapping extra retirement funds can also be a solution.
Offit cautioned that taking a large retirement account distribution to repay debt will mean having to declare a larger income that year and pay more taxes. A financial professional can help determine whether such a strategy makes sense to pay off debt all at once or whether the debt can be repaid over time. (Need advice? Contact us)
Pavese said that those who do retire with debt should focus on consumer debt first, then student loans, and finally mortgage debt. Taking a part-time job during retirement can also help eliminate debt quickly.(Related: Tips for maximizing retirement income)
But is it worth trying to get out of debt in your 60s, 70s, or 80s, or should you just make your minimum monthly payments and let your debts die when you do?
Laws vary by state, but after someone dies, creditors usually have a few months to make a claim against the deceased’s estate for what they are still owed. In general, the estate must repay these debts before heirs can receive anything. Medical bills that are unpaid at death are also the estate’s responsibility. And anyone who has cosigned a debt or who is a joint account holder will still be responsible for those debts after you die. (Related: What happens to your debt when you die)
However, accounts and assets with a designated beneficiary or payable-on-death designation usually will not be vulnerable to creditors. A life insurance policy is another possible way to ensure that heirs are left with something even if all of the estate goes to paying off creditors.
Finally, leaving instructions in a will on how debts should be paid after death can help the executor of the estate know which assets to liquidate first to repay obligations and which assets should ideally be left to heirs if financially feasible.
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This article was originally published February 2017. It has been updated.