By dankadlec
December 2, 2015
Anne Rippy—Getty Images

Retirement has gotten a lot more complicated in recent decades, much of it due to longevity—a welcome development that is largely out of our control. But unwelcome developments within our control contribute to the challenge too, including heavy debt and what appears to be blissful denial of the costs of later life.

One in five retirees has a mortgage that competes for limited resources with basic living expenses, according to a Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies report. One in four retirees carries so much credit card debt that paying it down is a priority. These findings echo earlier research showing an alarming trend toward quitting work while still in debt, long held to be a retirement taboo.

A third of homeowners 65 and older had a mortgage in 2011, up from 22% in 2001, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently found. And these seniors’ mortgages were bigger: a median $79,000 in 2011, up from an inflation-adjusted $43,400 a decade earlier. The number of households headed by someone at least age 65 and with a mortgage rose to 6.1 million from 3.8 million over the same decade, the bureau found.

Some blame rests with the Great Recession, when those nearing retirement may have been compelled to use their home equity as a lifeline. But in the years before the crisis millions of homeowners used low interest rates to acquire bigger and second homes or refinance and take cash out of their primary residence. A decade later, these decisions are coming home to roost.

Yet retirees show few signs of regret. They typically expect to live to age 90. Seven in 10 say they are in good health and 94% say they are happy, TCRS found. Some 84% enjoy a strong sense of purpose. Maybe retirees are finding that they do not need so much to be happy. But it’s also possible they are in deep denial.

Only 16% of retirees strongly agree that they built a sufficient nest egg. Total household savings in all retirement accounts among retirees at the time of their retirement was just $131,000. Almost nine in 10 say Social Security is a current source of retirement income and 61% expect it will be their primary source of retirement income for the rest of their life. They typically began taking Social security at age 62, the earliest possible age. Only 1% waited until age 70, when they began collecting the maximum monthly benefit.

Many retirees left work before they intended: 60% quit unexpectedly, often due to job displacement or dissatisfaction, or for health or caregiver reasons. Only 16% retired early because they had enough savings.

Today’s retirees have plenty advice for young workers, the TCRS survey found. Three in four retirees wish they had saved on a consistent basis; 68% wish they had been more knowledgeable about investments and 48% said they waited too long to get involved in their own financial security. There is nothing complicated about that.

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