Key Takeaways

  • Older adults increasingly are retiring with debt and are carrying greater amounts of debt than ever before.

  • Medical expenses and credit cards represent two of the most significant areas of senior debt.

  • Download our issue brief to learn what trade-offs older adults can make to cope with debt.

Today, more older adults are carrying debt into retirement more than ever before, and the amount of debt burden has skyrocketed over the past decade. For many, just keeping pace with the cost of daily living is a challenge.

A profile of senior households with debt

In 2015, the National Council on Aging, or NCOA, surveyed aging network professionals on their clients’ debt, and how it impacts these clients’ economic security. The results of this survey, combined with data from several national surveys of consumer finances and debt, are featured in the issue brief, Older Adults & Debt: Trends, Trade-offs, and Tools to Help. (This brief was updated in 2018 with new data.) According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, the percentage of households headed by an adult aged 65 or older with any debt increased from 41.5% in 1992 to 51.9% in 2010 to 60% in 2016. Median total debt for older adult households with debt was $31,300 in 2016—more than 2.5 times what it was in 2001.

Medical debt

Increasingly, medical debt poses the most significant barrier to economic well-being.

  • In 2020, nearly 4 million adults age 65+ (7%) had unpaid medical bills.1
  • The total amount of those unpaid medical bills increased by 20% from 2019-2020.1
  • Among all older adults, 9% have medical debt. But more than one in five older adults with incomes under $25,000 have medical debt.2
  • Medical debt affects 14% of older adults of color, compared to 10% of white older adults. Men are more likely to have medical debt when older: 10% compared to 7% of older women.2
  • Older adults with medical debt are more likely than those without medical debt to skip filling a prescription and forgo medical care (34% vs. 5% and 34% vs. 6%, respectively).2
  • Among older adults, 19% of those with medical debt find it very difficult to meet their monthly expenses, compared to 3.2% of those without medical debt.2
  • A study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that out-of-pocket medical expenditures in the five years prior to a person's death totaled more than $38,000, leaving 1 in 4 seniors approaching bankruptcy.3

Credit card and housing debt

Another common source of debt among senior households is credit cards. In 2001, only 24.2% of senior households held credit card balances; by 2016, more than 34.2% did. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, in 2016, 29.2% of older adult households owed money on a mortgage, home equity line of credit, or both. Of these, the median money owed was $68,500.

Trade-offs in dealing with debt

The NCOA survey found that seniors often make trade-offs to save money in the short term that can be harmful to their long-term health and finances. Among aging network professionals surveyed:

  • 23% regularly encounter seniors forgoing needed home/car repairs, which increases the risk of accidents and falls--the leading cause of injuries among seniors.
  • Nearly 15% regularly encounter seniors cutting pills, which can limit their effectiveness.
  • Just under 14% regularly see seniors skip meals, which can lead to nutrient deficiency.


1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Medical Billing and Collections Among Older Americans. May 30, 2023. Found on the internet at

2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 2023. Estimates using data from the 2018 FINRA Foundation National Financial Capability Study. Presented at Age + Action Virtual, June 21, 2023.

3. Amy S. Kelley, et al. The Burden of Health Care Costs in the Last 5 Years of Life. Annals of Internal Medicine. November 2015. Found on the internet at