Debt detestable to most, but experts say many boomers will take it into older years

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) A new car would be so nice it's $29,000 and the interest rate is practically zero. Or a swimming pool that would be fun, and the bank is offering a home equity line to help finance it.

And a weekend in Jamaica costs only $700 for two, hotel included. Just put it on a credit card.

Baby boomers have enjoyed an unparalled standard of living, but financial planners say their boomer clients almost uniformly vow to retire their debts before they retire themselves, recognizing it as an obstacle to an enjoyable, active lifestyle when they finish working.

As they get older I do see a very focused effort on wanting to be debt-free,'' said Adam Van Dyke, a certified financial planner in Irvine, Calif., whose 275 clients are mostly boomers between 40 and 60.

They realize they're behind on their nest egg accumulation goal. And they take a look at their credit card debt or car loans and see that getting in the way,'' he said.

Boomer Jeff Cartwright said he refuses to battle debt when he's old and borrows only reluctantly. Cartwright, 45, and his wife sent their three children to private school and are paying down more than $40,000 for tuition, plus $120,000 left on their home mortgage.

Both debts will be gone before either retires, said Cartwright, a management consultant in Franklin, Tenn.

I want to give my kids some advantages, some things I never had, and then I want them to get the (heck) out of my house,'' he said. When you retire, your income is essentially fixed. And you want that income to be able to go to things you want to do, not paying off some debt.''

Debt has lost many of the moralistic qualities Americans have historically ascribed it. Boomers' Depression-era parents found debt a rare and necessary evil, employed only to buy a house or perhaps a car. Not so their children, who are deeply enmeshed in an era of paying with plastic for lunch at Burger King.

Easy terms and an expansion of credit to virtually all income levels have left Americans awash in revolving debt credit card and other monthly balances now top $1.7 trillion. And boomers have racked up a sizable chunk of that amount, spurred by an optimism financial planners have found surprising, especially given the huge losses in jobs and stock values the past few years.

But as they age, many boomers grow fearful about the size of their debt and the prospect that it will muddle their retirements, planners say.

Among those enrolled in credit-counseling programs, average revolving debt has surged to $16,000 more than double the $7,000 people carried in the mid 1990s, according to Amerix Corp., a payment services provider to 300,000 people enrolled with consumer counseling agencies.

Boomers have about $1,200 more debt, on average, than the general population, said Mike Croxson, president of the Columbia, Md.-based firm.

On an unsecured basis, the debt-to-income ratio of a baby boomer went from about 44 percent in 1998 to above 50 percent today,'' he said.

But people tend to retire their debt as they age less than 4 percent of those paying through a credit-counseling firm are 65 or older, Amerix said.

Scott Kay, an Atlanta financial planner, said his clients, mostly boomers in their 50s, are looking to eliminate debt as quickly as possible, even when retirement planning isn't their prime consideration.

It's not even so much to make the cash flow work better, but it's the security. It gives them a bigger margin for (financial) safety,'' Kay said. When someone is 36 or 40, they have 25 years to work, 30 if they need it. (Debt) is just not that big an issue.''

Beyond the financial ability to pay, some boomers say a lack of debt offers peace of mind a treasured attribute in old age. Angela Mercer, a paralegal student in Marietta, Ga., said she and her boomer husband strive to pay their credit card balances off in full each month, although she noted that some of their friends enjoy more affluent lifestyles.

But I don't see how they can sleep at night,'' Mercer said of her friends with sizable installment debt.

Credit counseling customers tend to increasingly shun personal bankruptcy filings as they get older even if their situation is one in which it is appropriate, said Marianne Gray, board chairwoman of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and a counselor in Fort Worth, Texas.

They're very adamant It's my responsibility, I borrowed that money and I'm going to pay off every last penny,''' Gray said.

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