Some Seniors Fend Off Recession On Credit Cards

As the nation slowly recovers from the worst economic meltdown in recent history, older Americans are likely to continue to feel its after-effects. Many seniors on fixed incomes have had to rely on credit cards to stretch their finances, like 74-year-old Florida retiree Esperanza Lops, who accrued $19,000 in debt. David Alecock, a vice president at the non-profit credit counseling service InCharge Debt Solutions, offers advice to those considering retirement.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As the nation slowly recovers from the worst economic meltdown in recent history, older Americans are likely to continue to feel its after-effects. Many seniors on fixed incomes have had to rely on credit cards to stretch their finances. Researchers say that's partly because of rising medical costs and devalued homes and retirement accounts.

A study by the public policy group Dimos(ph) found that the average credit-card debt among Americans 65 and older has jumped 26 percent since 2005.

Seventy-four-year-old Esperanza Lops of Orlando, Florida, is now dealing with the consequences of that debt.

Ms. ESPERANZA LOPS: There were so many sleepless nights with that.

HANSEN: Lops racked up $19,000 in debt on four different credit cards after retiring from her job as a hospital worker. She admits she wasn't as financially responsible as she should have been. Lops says much of her own money went to help her adult son.

Ms. LOPS: I have an only child that got married, and they were having difficulties, and so sometimes he would call and says, you know, we don't have groceries, or mom, we cannot pay our cars and everything. So I was using my charge card, but I thank God that I am able to help my son bail out.

HANSEN: David Alecock is a vice president at InCharge Debt Solutions. This nonprofit consumer counseling service helped Lops cut her debt in half. He says credit card companies have made it tougher by raising interest rates and minimum payments, but he says there are clear warning signs to prevent a deep plunge into the red.

Mr. DAVID ALECOCK (Vice President, InCharge Debt Solutions): If you start to see 15 to 20 percent of your income going towards consumer debt, that's probably a red flag, and also with credit card payments in some cases doubling because the percentages are doubling of the required monthly payment, some people are going to very quickly move into kind of a different category, if you will. They might have been okay at that 15 to 20 percent level, but now, literally, the payments are beyond their means because of the change and, really, the acceleration of the repayment.

HANSEN: Alecock advises people nearly retirement age to be aggressive in paying down their debt now so they can enjoy their golden years later.

Mr. ALECOCK: Do what you can to not be in a debt burden situation as you enter your retirement years. Those should be your joyful years, not the years, as Esperanza said, where she's losing sleep at night.

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