Understanding Debt Among the Older Population

June 2020

Poor financial capability can contribute to a host of problems, particularly for people close to retirement.


Older Americans are increasingly likely to carry debt into retirement, and older households’ debt to income ratios are rising. This trend has prompted concerns about retirement security, since a higher debt burden can constrain the amount older persons can contribute to their retirement accounts and affect how they manage their retirement drawdowns. This study examines older persons’ attitudes toward and comprehension of debt, including individuals’ perceptions of their financial situations and how debt impacts their financial circumstances. 

This study was presented at the June 25, 2020, TIAA Institute Fellows Symposium. To view additional research that was presented, go to the 2020 Fellows Symposium Overview.

Key Insights
Many older Americans believe their debt is excessive, feel financially distressed, are contacted by debt collectors, and are unsatisfied with their financial situation.
Many people close to retirement carry debt, including unpaid medical debt and student loans.
Few older persons had given any thought 10 years previously to debt they might accrue today.
Having dependent children contributes to feelings of being overindebted, as does having a negative income shock.
Women, African Americans, and lower-income individuals are more financially stressed than their male, white, and higher-income counterparts.

The authors analyze debt among older Americans using two data sources: a debt module in the 2018 U.S. Health and Retirement Study and the 2018 National Financial Capability Study.