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There’s an ugly trend in the world of consumer credit card finance: Senior citizens are going bankrupt because of their dependence on credit cards. What’s behind this trend, and what steps can seniors take to avoid the perils of plastic?

The story begins with a disturbing yet thorough study from John Pottow, a professor of law at the University of Michigan. The study says that bankrupt seniors typically have almost twice as much credit card debt as younger consumers.

Pottow pegs the numbers as follows:

Demographic                    Average Credit Card Debt

Bankrupt Seniors (Over 65)            $27,213

Bankrupt Consumers (Under 65)        $15,499

Pottow’s study reveals that 66% of older Americans who enter into bankruptcy blame high credit card debt, compared to 35% of younger consumers who say the same thing.

Another interesting fact from the Pottow study is that seniors are reluctant to deal directly with credit card companies to work out a deal to pay off their debts. Only 37.8% tried reaching out to card issuers, who are usually amenable to working out a payoff plan with delinquent cardholders. Younger consumers seem to more savvy about dealing directly with card companies – 60% of them have approached a card issuer over their debts.

“The findings are both striking and ominous,” writes Pottow. “While multiple factors, such as health problems and medical debts, contribute to elders' financial distress, the dominant force appears to be overwhelming burdens related to credit cards.  Elder debtors carry 50% more credit card debt than younger debtors, and they cite credit card interest and fees as a reason for their bankruptcy filings 50% more frequently, results that are highly statistically significant.”

Pottow’s research shows that seniors are more likely to lack access to other forms of credit, are less likely to discuss their financial problems with their adult children, and suffer from “fixed income syndrome" that prevents them from staying on top of fee increases and higher interest rates.

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What steps can seniors (and their adult children) take to stem the tide of credit card-induced bankruptcy? Try these tips and see if they don’t cut into your credit card burden:

Switch to a debit card

“Pay as you go” is a good idea for people of any age. But for seniors, many of whom live on a fixed income, it’s imperative. Debit cards work just as well as credit cards at the grocery store or at the barber, but don’t come with onerous interest rates. And better yet, the money comes right out of your bank checking account – so you always know, on a day-to-day basis, where you stand financially.

Switch to American Express

If you absolutely have to have a credit card, get an American Express card. Any accumulated debt must be paid in full every 30 days. That way your debt doesn’t roll over from month to month and therefore won't get out of hand as much as it might with a traditional credit card.

Contact a reputable debt relief organization

If the situation gets out of hand and your credit card debt is alarmingly high ($10,000 or more is a good level to trigger those alarm bells), try working with a debt relief counselor. Make sure you work with a firm that is regulated (try vetting any company you’re considering via the Better Business Bureau). Also, make sure the debt relief firm you’re working with is certified with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or through the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning.

Above all, if you’re a senior citizen or a family member dealing with a parent with credit card debt problems, don’t wait too long to address the issue.

Your financial future, or the financial future of your senior parent, may well depend on it.

—For more ways to save, spend, invest and borrow, visit