NEW YORK (MainStreet) — While Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers come closer and closer to retirement, the way both generations think about debt may darken their golden years.
“Over the last three decades, there has been a collective shift in how people view debt – it's now perceived as a normal part of one's financial experience and that has fundamentally altered the way people spend and save," said Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights for insurance provider Allianz Life, which released the new numbers looking at how Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers see their financial future.
The new research shows that while living with debt has become the new norm, the stigma of being in debt has disappeared. Nearly half of both generations agree credit cards serve as a survival tool, while 43% agree, "lots of smart, hardworking people who are careful with spending also have a lot of credit card debt.”
Experts agree not all debt is bad — but credit card debt normally does not fall into that category.
“In general, if you are able to keep your debt at an interest rate lower than a reasonable rate of investment return — about 5% or less—and you are able to service your debt payments with your monthly income, then debt can be a valuable financial planning tool,” said Kyle Ryan, head of advisory services at Personal Capital in Redwood City, Calif.
“Most commonly, home mortgages, auto loans and student loans fall in this category. High interest rates, typically revolving credit card debt, almost never make sense financially,” Ryan added.
That way of thinking about credit card debt likely is having a negative effect on retirement savings, as well. Nearly a quarter of Gen X-ers and 19^ of Baby Boomers said they believe "you can't save for retirement until you pay off credit cards."
Libbe, however, said it is important to remember paying off credit card debt and saving for retirement are not mutually exclusive.
“You can't do everything at once — that goes for both paying off credit cards and saving for retirement,” Libbe said. “But if you can chip away at debt while putting away some money every month, you won't have to start at zero when it comes to building your retirement savings."
“The sooner Gen X-ers abandon this way of thinking the better,” she added.
Gabe Krajicek, CEO of financial technology company BancVue, said at least part of Americans’ struggles with personal finances is likely due to the state of financial literacy right now. BancVue’s recent consumer banking insights study showed barely more than a quarter of Americans feel in control of their finances, and 67% of adults ages 55 and up agree that they’re in control of their finances — down 16 percentage points compared to 2013.
“We’ve seen positive changes to the overall economy in recent years, but Americans—across the board—are still struggling to get their personal finances under control,” Krajicek said.
If one is thinking of taking on debt, Ryan said, it is important to keep in mind two things — time until retirement and one’s own comfort level concerning debt.
He said time until retirement is an important factor, since in many cases it means transitioning from earning an income and saving each month, to drawing down investments in order to meet living expenses.
The comfort level — “sleep at night” factor, as Ryan calls it — is more tangible, but as important. He said he has spoken with many Baby Boomers that can completely financially afford debt; however, they feel more comfortable without the debt hanging over their heads.
“In further conversations with these clients, I have never heard one iota of regret in moving to allow them to sleep at night better by paying off, or down, their debt,” he said.