More retirees in the red, not the pink

For many Americans, retirement isn't as rosy as they might have expected. The best-laid plans must be postponed or scaled back when budgets turn from black ink to red.

Just ask Morni Ramirez of Loveland, Colo., who is in her late 60s but hasn't retired. She and her family were already living modestly when, one difficult week last spring, a series of medical emergencies involving her husband and two stepchildren saddled them with $3,000 in bills not covered by their health insurance. It was a setback for a couple already working hard to pay off $19,000 in old credit-card debts they brought to their marriage several years ago. Still, with two incomes and her Social Security check, they soldiered on, continuing to whittle down their balances.

That changed last Nov. 14. Mrs. Ramirez was laid off from her customer service job at Office Max. With only her husband's paycheck - he works for a grocery chain - they are struggling to keep up regular payments. Despite an intensive job search, Ramirez is still looking for work to help pay off the family's debts.

Their financial plight mirrors the challenges other older Americans are facing. A sobering new report by Demos, a public policy group in New York, finds that between 1992 and 2001, the average credit-card debt among Americans over age 65 nearly doubled to $4,041.

Those between 65 and 69, many of them recent retirees, reported a stunning 217 percent increase in credit-card debt to $5,884. That's up from $1,842 in 1992. Among those between 55 and 64, credit-card debt jumped nearly 50 percent to $4,088. (The average American family saw an increase of 53 percent, to $4,196.)

All this red ink is giving older Americans a dubious distinction: They're now the fastest-growing age group headed into bankruptcy court.

No wonder Demos calls its report "Retiring in the Red." And no wonder AARP is warning that this is "a national issue of deep importance."

According to Demos, "just one unexpected expense - an illness, hospitalization, or even a repair to an aging home - can start a vicious cycle of debt." Or, as with the Ramirezes, it can increase existing debts. Credit-card interest rates and penalty fees can compound older people's financial problems, even as health care costs are rising and eating up more of their fixed incomes.

The group's findings come at a time when President Bush is talking about privatizing Social Security, and when Alan Greenspan is calling for cuts in Social Security. Yet more than a third of seniors depend on Social Security for over 90 percent of their income, Demos notes.

For the Ramirezes, belt-tightening continues. They cut up their credit cards. "I pick up pennies off the floor," she says. "We combine errands, turn the heat down, and turn the lights off. If we have to shop, we go to the Habitat for Humanity thrift shop." She even waits until Saturday to do her banking, because that's the day they offer free food.

Ramirez's experience and the Demos study serve as cautionary tales, showing the need for financial savvy at every stage of life. As Ramirez, who has no pension, says, "I came from a very stable family, and it just didn't occur to me to become a financial genius. I don't care about having a lot of money, but it bothers me not to be able to write a check when a bill comes due."

The report is also a reminder that the traditional three-legged stool of retirement income - Social Security, pensions, and savings - is being redesigned as more older people need or want to add a fourth leg: a paycheck.

Ramirez continues her job search. "I type very fast, so I can do office work," she says. "I also applied for a janitor job at my church. I don't care what I do as long as I can bring home a paycheck."

For now, leisure must wait.

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