The first wave of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are hitting retirement age, but not without dragging some financial baggage into their golden years.
According to TransUnion's proprietary database, the average debt of Baby Boomers stands at $99,852. Meanwhile, a TransUnion retirement credit health survey shows "Boomers are at risk of damaging their credit health in retirement, with 34% of actively reducing their reliance on credit cards in preparation for retirement - behavior that may actually result in account closures and ultimately, credit score reductions."
Yet of those retiring Boomers surveyed by TransUnion, just 16% stated that maintaining credit health "is a top financial concern when entering retirement." TransUnion's proprietary consumer data also notes that "20% of people in that age range already have subprime credit."
"Our findings highlight the importance of continued credit education for consumers of all ages," says Heather Battison, vice president of TransUnion. "Well-intentioned Baby Boomers are putting themselves at risk by snubbing their cards. Card providers may close unused accounts due to inactivity, which negatively impacts consumer credit. A better approach is to continue to use existing credit cards for small purchases and pay off the balance in full and on time each month."
It may take some time to absorb the fact that one's peak earning years are over, and in retirement, spending needs to be curtailed, and debt reined in. But try telling that to a 65-year-old boomer who's been accustomed to spending liberally during their entire working years.
"Retirees stay credit healthy the same way as anyone else does; do not create debt," says Melody Juge, founder of Life Income Management, with offices in North Carolina and Southern California. "Yet as a retiree ages, they often become more of a risk to any company they are seeking credit from due to the fact that they are most often on a fixed income which flows to them from either Social Security or pension/any form of retirement money. They no longer have unearned income, and they have a limited number of years left in their life."
To keep your credit health vigorous and vibrant, focus on a few key moves that should keep you out of financial trouble in retirement.
No co-signing loans - Co-signing on a loan for a family member or friend can negatively affect credit scores. "Any missed payments - even for someone else's loan - can hurt a credit score," says Battison.
Prune debt regularly - Baby Boomers have an average of $99,852 in debt, according to TransUnion's consumer database, and that's way too high. "Focus on paying off debts to avoid racking up interest payments and preserve funds for the timely repayment of any loan or credit card bills," advises Battison.
Be vigilant about checking credit scores - It seems like an obvious move, but once a senior settles into retirement, the regular personal financial protection steps taken during the working years may not be as big a priority in one's 60's and 70's. "Check your credit regularly," says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network. "Consumers can access credit reports once each year for free at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228." Then, make sure to review credit reports for accuracy, Gallegos says. "If reports show any inaccuracies - from address to an incorrect outstanding balance on a credit card - correct them," he says. "The best, fastest and most effective way is to follow the directions on each agency's website. Under terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the credit bureaus must investigate any disputed items and remove them from the credit report if they cannot be verified."
Use credit sparingly - Minimize credit card percentage utilization and maximise credit available, advises Gallegos. "If you have a credit card with a limit of$10,000, and you owe $3,500 on it, that's 35% utilization," he notes. "Anything over 35% is considered is high and can impact credit scores. A credit utilization rate over 50%will have a definite negative impact on a credit score, and a maxed-out card will very negatively impact the score."
Credit experts say it's usually credit card overuse that gets seniors into financial credit problems, so if you need a focused starting point, begin right there. The good news is that higher-end financial purchases, like homes and college debt, are likely out of the way, and shouldn't contribute to a retiree's credit situation in a negative manner.
"If there's an upside, few seniors need to seek out major new loans like mortgages, so any damage to their credit scores may be less consequential compared to younger borrowers," states Ben Woolsey, president of CreditCardForum.com.
The end of the story is that there is no end of the story when it comes to protecting your credit health in retirement. Life may be slowing down, but bad credit has a habit of creeping up fast, and it'll be up to you stop it in its tracks before it becomes a vexing issue in your post-working years.
Editors' pick: Originally published March 14.