Managing credit card debt is key to financial security—yet many older adults can’t make ends meet without putting daily expenses on a charge card.
It can be difficult for older adults on fixed incomes to pay down balances. As a result, mounting credit card debt becomes a tremendous stressor.
While it can be challenging, it is possible to get credit card debt under control. These 5 key strategies can help.
Today in America, a retirement crisis looms for millions of older adults: growing credit card debt.
Thanks to soaring inflation and the mounting costs of food, housing, utilities, and more, retirees now outspend their annual incomes by more than $4,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 With few options to bridge the gap, more and more older adults like Franklin have little choice but to use their charge cards to cover basic expenses.
In fact, Forbes recently reported that 41 percent of households headed by someone between the ages of 65-74 carry credit card debt—up from 27 percent in 1989, according to data from the Federal Reserve.2 In households headed by someone age 75+, that percentage rose by 18 points during the same period, from 10 to 28. And the median amount of credit card debt for each group now tops $2,850 and $2,700, respectively.
“That’s turning out to be a tremendous stressor for retirees with fixed incomes,” said Genevieve Waterman, NCOA's Director of Economic Security.
When you’re charging things you can’t live without because your monthly expenses are higher than your income, it’s incredibly difficult to pay down those balances. And with the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to fight inflation, credit card debt is getting even more expensive. It can feel like a hopeless cycle.”
How can I get help with credit card debt?
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. And one of the first things you should do, according to Waterman, is to understand that your credit card debt is not a character flaw. “Most retirees aren’t using their charge cards for frivolous purchases,” Waterman said. “They’re using them out of necessity.”
The second thing you should do—if you haven’t already—is learn how to create and stick to a budget. A budget won’t change your income, but it will help you better manage the money you do have.
Finally, know that while it can be challenging, it is possible to get your credit card debt under control.
5 key strategies to help you get your credit card debt under control
1. Contact your credit card companies
Falling behind on your payments can leave a lasting, negative impact on your credit. That’s why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends reaching out to your creditors to explain your situation.
“Don’t be shy about asking for help,” Waterman said. “Many credit card companies are willing to work with you when you demonstrate a good faith effort. And this is even more true during COVID-19, when some are granting credit card debt forgiveness in certain specific situations.”
Before you pick up the phone, you’ll want to be as prepared as you can be, she said. That includes reviewing your income and expenses in advance and figuring out how much you can reasonably afford to pay back each month. Be ready to explain why you can’t cover your minimum monthly payment(s), and when you think you might be able to resume doing so.
When you do make your calls, here are some questions to ask:
- Do you have a forbearance program? If so, do I qualify
- Can I make a payment every other month?
- Would you consider reducing my interest rate?
- What other flexibility do you offer?
Once you agree to any new terms, be sure to get them in writing. And remember: if the idea of calling your credit card companies makes you anxious, the worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no.
2. Understand the two ways to pay off credit card debt
Often called the “snowball method” and the “avalanche method,” these two debt reduction strategies take a slightly different approach.
If you’re someone who’s motivated by small successes, the snowball method could be a helpful way to get your credit card debt under control. In this approach, you first pay the minimum monthly balance on each of your cards; then, you apply any extra money you might have—even if it’s just a few dollars—to the card with the lowest balance. Once you pay that card off, you add what you had been paying on it to your monthly payment on the card with the next-lowest balance. Each time you do this, your payments get bigger … just like a snowball rolling down a hill. Plus, you can feel a real sense of accomplishment each time you check off a card that you’ve paid.
The avalanche method also involves paying off your credit cards one at a time. However, you prioritize their order based on interest rate, not balance. You’ll start by paying the monthly minimums on each of your cards; then, you’ll apply any extra to the card with the highest interest rate. Once you pay that card off, you add what you had been paying on it to your monthly payment on the card with the next-highest interest rate.
Although this likely means it will take you more time to eliminate your credit card debt, it also means you’ll pay less in the long run because you’ll be saving on interest.
3. Consider a debt management plan
Typically offered through a certified credit counselor, a debt management plan (DMP) consolidates your credit card debt into a single monthly payment. Your counselor will:
- Work with you to determine how much you can pay each month.
- Negotiate with your credit card companies to adjust your repayment terms.
- Accept your monthly payment and distribute it to your creditors.
A debt management plan eliminates the need to juggle different payments and due dates. It can help you meet your debt obligations without worrying about late fees and harassing calls from debt collection agencies.
While a DMP can be a powerful tool to help you get your finances back on track, it’s also not for everyone. Learn more about the pros and cons of a debt management plan so you can decide whether it’s a good option for you.
4. Participate in credit counseling
Credit counseling services offer expert guidance to help you navigate your way out of debt. This can be a worthwhile strategy if you:
- Are having trouble affording monthly payments on multiple accounts.
- Want to shorten the time it will take to pay off your debt.
- Would like to learn strategies for better managing your finances.
- Prefer to get advice when working toward your financial goals.
However, before you take this step, be sure to do your research, Waterman advised. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of scammers out there just waiting to take advantage of people who are buried under debt. That’s why it’s important to choose a reputable, nonprofit credit counseling agency with a solid rating from the Better Business Bureau.”
NCOA’s guide, “Is Credit Counseling Worth It?”, can help. Learn how it works, see where to find credit counselors near you, and understand what questions to ask before you choose a service.
5. Get your money muscles in peak shape.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau helps people learn vital money management and debt reduction skills. Learn more about its Get a Handle on Debt boot camp and enter your email address to receive free advice, tips, and tricks in your inbox.
More debt management resources to consider
Once you commit to paying down your credit card debt, it’s important to avoid running up your balances again. If you’re having trouble affording daily necessities, you may be eligible for a variety of benefits programs that can help you pay for food, medicine, utilities, and more. Visit NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp to get connected to programs in your area that can reduce your financial burden.
In addition, NCOA’s Age Well Planner includes a wealth of financial planning resources, tools, and tips personalized just for you.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Annual Expenditures by Occupation.” Found on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/cex/tables/calendar-year/mean-item-share-average-standard-error/reference-person-occupation-2020.pdf (Accessed on 22 July 2022).
2. Forbes, “America’s Seniors in Debt: A Growing Problem.” Found on the internet at https://www.forbes.com/advisor/retirement/seniors-debt-statistics/#seniors-and-credit-card-debt