As baby boomers approach retirement, many are finding themselves with limited savings. A recent Transamerica Center study found baby boomers — those between the ages of 56 and 74 — have a median savings of just $152,000.
Retirement may be farther off on the horizon for Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, but they’re not faring much better with a median savings of $66,000 socked away.
Besides a lack of savings, debt is a financial thorn in the side of these two generational cohorts — 56% of baby boomers and 68% of Gen Xers report that paying off their mortgage, credit cards and other consumer debt is a top priority. If you have debt to pay off, here are five reasons why you should prioritize it before you retire.
1] Debt can take longer to pay off on a reduced income
To maintain your standard of living in retirement, experts estimate you need enough saved to have a monthly income that’s 75% to 80% of your pre-retirement salary. Having to make credit card, personal loan or auto loan payments in retirement on a reduced income can leave you with less money to live on. While still earning a full salary, you have the flexibility to devote more money, including commissions and bonuses, to debt elimination.
Here’s what to do next: Make a list of your debts so you can see in totality how much you owe. Locate areas where you can reduce monthly expenses and discretionary spending. Put excess funds toward paying off credit cards and other consumer debt.
2] Interest on high-interest debt may outpace your investment returns
Keeping high-interest consumer debt around can have long-term financial consequences. Credit cards come with an average interest rate of nearly 15%. The amount you’re paying to borrow money may exceed the rate of return on your investments and could better serve you by accumulating in a retirement account. The high-interest debt payments that do follow you into retirement can eat away at your hard-earned nest egg.
Here’s what to do next: Explore ways to lower your interest rates, especially now that the Federal Reserve has lowered the fed funds rate. Consider refinancing or consolidating high-interest debt with a low-interest personal loan or balance transfer credit card. Balance transfer cards may offer interest as low as 0% APR for a period of 12 to 21 months. During this interest vacation, your payments will go to the principal so you can aggressively attack your balances.
3] Lingering debt balances can increase your debt-to-income ratio
Maintaining high debt balances in retirement on a limited income may cause your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to spike. If you’re planning to, say, purchase a vacation home, boat or luxury vehicle after retiring, you may find it challenging to get approved for a loan with a sky-high DTI.
Here’s what to do next: Estimate what your DTI would be on a reduced income to see where you will stand. The maximum DTI requirement varies from lender to lender. Maintaining a DTI of less than 35% is recommended. A much higher DTI could signal to lenders that you’re carrying more debt than you can manage. The maximum DTI for a mortgage is typically 43%.
4] Carrying debt is stressful
Most hope for a life of travel, leisure and recreational pursuit during retirement. Sadly, the fear of being financially insecure during this later life stage means some are dreading retirement instead of looking forward to it. A recent study found that 6% of people have cried about retirement, and debt is one of the biggest reasons people get emotional about money. Eliminating debt before you retire can remove this stressor.
Here’s what to do next: If you’re struggling to control your debt and stressing about how much you owe, consider bringing in someone to guide you through debt repayment. A financial planner can help you develop a debt and retirement plan. Some credit counseling agencies offer debt management plans where a counselor works with you and your creditors to negotiate better terms on your unsecured debt. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your debt — making just minimum payments can cause interest charges to spiral out of control.
5] You may be able to retire early (or on time)
Without having to factor debt payments into your monthly post-retirement budget, you may find you can stop working earlier than anticipated. Eliminating the car note, credit card payment or student loan payment in the years leading up to retirement means more money can be devoted to saving in preparation.
Here’s what to do next: If you can eliminate a few debt payments, consider putting the extra money that’s now available towards catch-up retirement contributions to grow your nest egg. People over 50 may be eligible to make $6,000 catch-up contributions for the 2019 tax year and $6,500 for 2020 into 401(k), 403(b), SARSEP and governmental 457(b) retirement plans.
The bottom line
Getting rid of debt before retirement can help you save more ahead of your departure from the workforce. Debt payments that tag along with you into retirement can make it harder for you to preserve savings and maintain the standard of living you desire.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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