Debt can be a burden at any age because it can prevent you from getting ahead financially. But debt can be an especially heavy weight in retirement. Making monthly debt payments can leave you with less money to cover necessary expenses – especially if you’re living on a fixed income.
“If you ignore this situation, it very well could eat into your nest egg over the years and force you back to work at some point down the road,” warned Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner and editor of the Wealth Pilgrim website.
Taking steps to eliminate debt now can keep it from derailing your retirement. “I recommend taking a look at your debts and giving yourself a realistic term,” said Leslie Tayne, a financial attorney and author of “Life and Debt.” She recommends shooting for five to seven years to get your debt down to zero.
Setting a deadline to get rid of debt allows you to establish a date for when you can comfortably retire, Tayne said. Focus on paying off these bills if you want to retire without debt.
Mortgages are the biggest source of debt for Americans, according to a GOBankingRates survey on American debt. So if you can eliminate this debt, you'll likely cut out one of your biggest expenses and free up more income in retirement.
You have several options to pay off your mortgage faster or reduce the amount you owe. If you’re still many years away from retirement, you might benefit from refinancing to a shorter-term mortgage – such as a 15-year loan – that will also reduce the amount of interest you pay over time.
If you’re closer to retirement age, make additional payments on your current mortgage and pay it off faster. You can make an extra payment each month, Tayne said. Make sure your extra payment goes toward the loan principal so your debt decreases faster. You also can use a work bonus to make an extra mortgage payment at the end of every year.
Or, you can downsize years before retirement to a house that requires a much smaller mortgage – and smaller utility, insurance and tax bills. Then, you can pay off your mortgage faster and free up more income to boost retirement savings, or cover costs in retirement.
CREDIT CARD DEBT
About 1 in 3 American adults ages 55 to 64 carry a credit card balance – and the median amount they owe is $3,000, according to an analysis of credit card debt by GOBankingRates.
Credit card debt typically carries a high interest rate, so get rid of it. The longer it takes you to pay it off, the more you will pay in interest. That will leave you with less money to stash in retirement savings or to pay down other debt. Remember, unlike mortgage and student loan interest, you can’t deduct credit card interest on your tax return.
Use an online credit card calculator to see how long it will take to pay off what you owe based on the monthly payments you make. For example, if you owe $5,000 on a card with a 15 percent annual interest rate and pay $300 per month, it will take one year and seven months to pay it off. And you'll pay $642 in interest. If you increase monthly payments to $500, it will take only a year to wipe out your debt, and you'll pay just $375 in interest.
“You should always be paying above the minimum on your credit card,” Tayne said. “However, if you are trying to get your debt down fast, you might want to consider making biweekly payments on your credit card. This will help you pay both interest and principal.”
To boost payments, Frankle recommends cutting your expenses and finding ways to increase your income – such as by getting a second job or renting out a room in your house. And be sure to leave your credit card at home so you’re not tempted to use it, Tayne said.
STUDENT LOAN DEBT
A survey by EdAssist, a provider of student loan repayment services, found that 78 percent of baby boomers carrying student loan debt said the money they owe has affected their ability to save for retirement.
“If you have student loan debt and you are still making payments, then consider paying this off before you retire,” Tayne said. That way, you'll have more money in your budget each month to boost retirement savings – and one less expense in retirement.
You might be able to refinance your loans to get a lower interest rate and shorter repayment term. Doing so will help reduce the total amount of interest you pay and can help you pay off your loans faster. Companies such as SoFi and CommonBond offer loan refinancing.
“If you’re paying off student loans because you were a co-signer and the student is now an adult, consider having a talk with them and asking if they can contribute more towards the loan so you can both pay it off at a faster rate,” Tayne said. You don’t want this debt to be hanging over your head while you are in retirement, she added.
More than one-fourth of adults ages 55 to 64 have auto loan debt, and the median owed is $10,000, according to GOBankingRates’ survey on debt. The percentage doesn’t shrink that much as adults reach retirement age either. The survey found that 20 percent of adults ages 65 and older have a car loan, with a median $8,000 owed.
If you think you won’t be able to afford your car payments when you retire, consider trading in your pricey vehicle for a more affordable one. Ask yourself if you “really need” a luxury SUV, Tayne said. Look for a car you can buy with cash or with a smaller loan that can be paid off quickly.
She recommended using the money you save with a smaller car payment to pay down other debts. “You also will find yourself living more comfortable post-retirement,” she said.
It’s a good idea to pay off medical debt before you retire, since healthcare costs can be hefty in retirement. Fidelity Investments found that a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2016 will need an average of $260,000 to cover medical costs in retirement.
GOBankingRates’ survey found that 17 percent of adults ages 55 to 64 have medical debt, and the median owed is $700. Meanwhile, 9 percent of adults 65 and older have medical debt, with a median $1,000 owed.
You might be able to negotiate your medical bills and lower the amount you have to pay. Use free resources such as the websites Healthcare Bluebook or New Choice Health to find the cost for certain medical procedures and learn if you were charged more than the going rate. Call the billing department and politely push for a discount if the rate you were charged is higher than the average.
Tayne recommends getting debt help by meeting with a financial advisor who can create a plan to get rid of debt and develop a timeline for retirement. If you need debt help but can’t afford a financial planner, reach out to a nonprofit credit counseling agency that offers free or low-cost assistance. You can find certified counselors at NFCC.org, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.