For senior citizens, it’s essential to eliminate debt as soon as possible. If you’re already retired and on a limited income, making debt payments and managing your living expenses is challenging.

Repaying debts can interfere with your retirement savings plan in the years leading up to your retirement because each month, the payments you need to make on your debts are taking priority over the monthly contributions you should be making to your 401(k) and/or IRA accounts. 

Regardless of your situation, if you are over 60 years old, we recommend you seek professional debt relief assistance for seniors to determine the right strategy for paying off your current debts. While filing for bankruptcy can be the quickest way to eliminate most debts, there are other, less drastic options available to consider before you go that route.

Challenges the Elderly Face

Older adults are carrying greater amounts of debt and retiring with debt more often than ever before. The average non-mortgage debt carried by baby boomers (age 59-77) was $19,203 in Q2 of 2023. This includes credit cards, personal loans, and other unsecured debts and large, unexpected bills that seniors deal with.

Credit cards represent the most significant area of debt for seniors. The average credit card balance for baby boomers in 2023 was $6,601 and $3,434 for those over the age of 77.

While student loan debt is generally associated with the younger generation, those who are 62 and older had the highest student loan balances in 2023 at $49,375.  This is most likely due to taking out these loans to pay for their (grand)children’s education instead of their (grand)kids taking out the loans themselves.

Retirees often rely on fixed incomes from Social Security and flat monthly payments from employer pensions, which makes repaying debt a major stressor. After paying for monthly expenses, they may need more at the end of the month to pay down high credit card balances. Getting out of debt while ensuring they can keep up with their monthly expenses can often seem like a difficult, ongoing task for the elderly.

Debt Relief Help for Seniors

Meeting the payments on high-balance, high-interest debt like the kind you’d find on most credit cards may make it difficult for seniors to make ends meet. Fortunately, senior citizen debt relief programs can help pay down debts.

Paying off debt before retirement has many advantages. It can help free up money so you can save for retirement. Even if you’re already retired, paying off debts can free up your income so you can use it to cover essential costs, such as medical bills, groceries, and assisted living arrangements, during retirement.

Some alternative debt relief options, like bankruptcy, will lower your credit score significantly and make it difficult for you to access new credit in the future. However, the need to access new loans and credit lines may not be as big of an issue for seniors as it is for younger debtors.

5 Options for Seniors To Get Out of Debt

Help for seniors who are dealing with significant debt is available in many forms, from debt relief programs and counseling to government benefits. Explore our recommendations below to find an option that suits your financial situation.

1. Know Your Debt

Before seeking out help for seniors, make a list of everything you owe and make note of which businesses and/or lenders you owe it to. Knowing the specifics of your debt will allow you to find an effective solution.

Make a list of each debt with the outstanding balance you owe, monthly installment, interest rate, payment due date, and the name of the creditor. This will give you an idea of how much you owe in total, which debts are the most expensive, and which ones are secured vs. unsecured.

2. Make a Budget

Creating a budget is a great place to start when it comes to paying off debt. A detailed budget will allow you to see where you’re spending your money. This will highlight the source of the debt you’ve accumulated and if it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate spending, especially in your discretionary purchases.

Your budget will also give you an idea of how much you pay toward your debt each month. This is a good starting point for a repayment plan that works. If you cannot make any short-term reductions in your spending, then look to increase your income to free up some additional cash flow to put toward your debts each month. Start by looking for senior employment programs or asking for employment referrals so you can supplement your normal retirement income and help pay off your debts.

Brad Reichert, debt expert and founder and managing director of Reichert Asset Management LLC, offers advice for seniors who need more money to pay off debt. “If seniors can’t make adequate payments on their debt because of a fixed income, oftentimes, the most obvious solution is to increase or find another source of income to help provide some extra cash to put toward reducing debt,” Reichert explains. “With today’s new ‘gig economy,’ virtually anyone can find a way to earn extra income on the side,” he adds.

3. Consider Debt Relief Help for Seniors

If you’re finding it difficult to keep up with your monthly payments, debt relief programs can help you repay your debt faster. Consider some of the options below:

Debt Consolidation

If you have multiple unsecured debts that carry high, variable interest rates (such as credit cards with APRs above 20%), such as personal loans or credit cards, you can consolidate them into a single fixed-rate loan to make repayment easier. If you have good credit and a FICO credit score above 680-700, you may be able to get a debt consolidation loan with a low-interest rate.

Another option, if you have a clean credit profile, is to apply for a 0% APR balance transfer credit card. If you manage to pay off your entire balance within the initial zero-interest promotional timeframe, you can avoid paying interest and save yourself the high-rate interest charges you may currently be paying on your credit cards and unsecured debts.

Debt Settlement

If you’ve already missed several payments on one or more of your bills or unsecured debts you have outstanding, debt settlement can help you settle your accounts, oftentimes for much less than you owe. Debt settlement companies can negotiate with your creditors to agree to lower balances and save you up to 50% before you account for the debt settlement company’s fees. This may be a good solution for seniors with a lot of debt or those on the brink of bankruptcy.

Credit Counseling

If you don’t know where to start with debt repayment, nonprofit credit counseling can be a great way to enlist the help of a professional. A credit counselor will review your credit report, debt, and budget to create a tailored repayment plan.

Credit counselors can also enroll your debts in a debt management program and negotiate lower interest rates with your lenders so you can pay off debts faster.

Bankruptcy

Consider filing for bankruptcy as a last resort. Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 are two commonly used options for individuals. Seniors with a lot of non-exempt equity in their homes, secured debts, and/or those who aren’t able to pass the means test that is required before they can file Chapter 7 bankruptcy may find Chapter 13 bankruptcy the better choice.

4. Get a Reverse Mortgage Loan

If you’re over the age of 62, a reverse mortgage will allow you to borrow against the equity of your home. You can receive cash from this kind of loan on a monthly or discretionary lump-sum basis, provided you have enough equity in the home and you maintain the home in good condition.  While you receive these cash dispersals, you won’t need to make any payments back to the bank until you sell the house or move. 

This will provide you access to money that can be used to pay down debts.  And since this new cash is not actually income but rather it is borrowed money, it is not subject to income tax at the state or federal levels.

However, fees and interest are added to your loan balance each month. As your loan balance increases, home equity decreases. You may want to keep this in mind if you depend on home equity as a part of your retirement plan or if you wish to leave the house to your heirs after you pass away.

5. Get Government Assistance

Help for seniors is also available in the form of federal government programs like Medicaid and Medicare. The Medicare Savings Program can help you pay your health care premiums, deductibles, and copayments if you meet the eligibility requirements. The official website, Medicare.gov, offers more information on the program.

The government also has several programs to help low-income seniors get access to food vouchers and nutritious meals, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

The Administration on Aging is an organization that helps protect the well-being of the elderly. The organization offers long-term care facilities, adult day care and nursing homes, transportation for those with disabilities, help with health insurance, and legal aid to protect against lenders and elder abuse.

Look for community-based services in your area that offer advocacy, resources, and benefits to cover expenses like prescription drugs, food, in-home care services, and family caregiver support to ease the burden for you and your loved ones.

What Happens if You Don’t Pay Your Debt as a Senior Citizen?

Defaulting on debts can significantly lower your credit score, which can make it difficult for you to qualify for new loans or credit lines in the future. If you don’t make payments on secured debts, like a car loan or mortgage, your property may eventually be repossessed.

Failing to pay your debts can also lead to collection calls and letters, which can impact your stress levels. While debt collectors can’t garnish Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, they can still petition the courts for a judge’s order to tap into your bank account to collect the amount you owe.

To avoid debt collection, it's important to understand your rights and options.

What’s the Best Debt Relief Option for a Senior Citizen?

Saving for retirement should be a top priority for Americans who haven’t yet retired. If you’re already retired, it's important to create and stick to a budget to ensure you’ll be able to keep up with your living expenses, both now and in the future.

If you’re finding it difficult to do this because of mounting debt repayments, we recommend talking to a debt professional, seeking free services for seniors, or identifying programs that can offer free money. You may need to consolidate or settle your debts, depending on how much you owe.

For some seniors, it may be more urgent to get rid of as much debt as possible to make ends meet. For such cases, bankruptcy may be the right option. When you’re retired, ready access to credit may not be as important. However, we recommend speaking to a bankruptcy lawyer if you’re considering this option.