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Loving kids to debt: Older Americans in trouble for 'helping' children

The first thing Carmen Wong Ulrich discovered when she wrote an article for the New York Times on older Americans getting into debt was how reluctant seniors were to talk about their finances.

"It was incredibly hard to get seniors to talk about," says Ulrich, the author of "The Real Cost of Living," and a frequent guest on national television shows. "It wasn't about medical debt, it was about debt you wanted to take on for other people or you just wanted to buy stuff. Boomers don't want to talk about that stuff."

Part of the reason they may not want to talk about debt is that the news isn't very encouraging. A January 2013 analysis by Nadia Karamcheva at the Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., that examines social and economic issues, found debt for older Americans is increasing.

In 1998, about 30 percent of American adults ages 65 and older were in debt, with the median value of that debt per person at $13,586. In 2010, the percentage of older Americans in debt was at 43.4 percent, with a median value per person of $21,165. This is using inflation-adjusted values.

The biggest portion of this debt is mortgages. The portion of older adults with an outstanding mortgage jumped from 16.2 percent in 1998 to 23.1 percent in 2010. The median value of that mortgage debt doubled over that time period to $51,000 in 2010.

This means older homeowners, on average, owned 93 percent of their homes in 1998. By 2010, older homeowners owned, on average, 87 percent of their homes.

Working toward retirement

Karamcheva says there is a common pattern of life where the young borrow or invest in education, for example, with a high expectation of earning a salary in the future. They then accumulate more assets toward the middle part of their life and finally, when older, enjoy the fruits of their labors — de-accumulating their wealth.

With this standard lifestyle model, it seems strange, Karamcheva says, that debt among the elderly is increasing. During retirement, you would expect individuals to be living off their accumulated assets and Social Security.

Best-selling financial author, columnist and radio host Dave Ramsey says in an email interview with the Deseret News that this concerns him. "Your largest wealth building tool is your income, and when it's tied up in monthly payments, it's hard to feel like you're in control of your money," he says. "Walking around with no budget, no savings and borrowing money doesn't work. Make a plan for your money so can get out of debt and live your retirement years with dignity."

Kay (63) and Connie (60) Wells from West Valley City are trying to act wisely. They were married in 2000, a second marriage for both. Both had kids — Kay has five daughters and Connie has five daughters and one son.

"Before I got married to Connie, I was treading water financially," Kay says. "I was just living paycheck to paycheck."

Connie was also struggling financially.

When they first got married, five children and one grandchild were living with them. After a few years, they encouraged one of the older children to get a job and get out on her own. The child moved out to another parent — who told her the same thing.

Connie and Kay say just giving money to children wouldn't always be helpful — and sometimes would just enable children to not take responsibility. "If you help them out too much, you are not really helping them out; you are hurting them," Connie says. "And if something happened to you, they wouldn't know how to survive."

Connie knows some adult children in their 50s still financially dependent on their 80- and 90-year-old parents. "They've bailed them out so often that (the adult children) haven't learned the value of money."

Often, "bailing out" involves paying for school.

Assuming parents will pay

Ulrich, who is president and co-founder of ALTA Wealth Management, says for Generation X and younger, there is a feeling that paying for school is just what parents do, Ulrich says. "Of course you are going to pay for my school," Ulrich says younger people think. "You are going to pay for my school, you are going to pay for my wedding, you are going to give me a down payment for a house."

Yet parents are doing this for their children whether the parents can afford it or not.

"Where did we get the idea that this was the responsibility of our parents?" Ulrich says.

A January 2013 study by AARP's Public Policy Institute and Demos found older Americans are more than twice as likely to run up credit card debt to help family than younger Americans. Twenty-three percent of older Americans over 50 say they added to their credit card balances because they gave money to relatives or paid the debts of relatives. Only 11 percent of those under 50 reported the same thing.

Will VanderToolen, director of counseling services at AAA Fair Credit Foundation in Salt Lake City, sees seniors who are caught at both ends — sandwiched between helping their children and their aging parents.

Most of the seniors coming into his office in Salt Lake City have a substantial amount of debt, VanderToolen says. "They are looking down at the next few years and thinking their income just isn't going to cut it," VanderToolen says. "Unfortunately, a lot of people in that age bracket, have been assisting not only their children, but possibly their parents. They are sandwiched into this area where they are taking care of everyone else but not themselves."

The sandwich generation

Dave Ramsey says before parents can really help their children financially, the parents need to be debt-free themselves and have an adequate emergency fund in place. If they have additional savings on top of these financial essentials, then they can consider helping their children financially.

"But if paying for their college or car means you don't have any money in the bank, then you're putting yourself in a risky position," he says. "Retiring and eating are necessities, but helping your kids with college or a car are luxuries. You will retire one day. And I don't believe there are lots of ways to retire other than you being ready for retirement, unless you want to retire on Social Security and buy that cookbook called '72 Ways to Prepare Alpo and Love It.' This doesn't make you a child abuser; it makes you responsible with your money."

This is pretty much the attitude Kay and Connie Wells have.

"When you see that they aren't making any effort, and you are just doing it all, then you don't want to help," Connie says. "If they are making an effort, and they are doing everything possible they can, then I feel like you can help. But if you are going without and they are doing nothing … "

" … then you don't help them," Kay says, finishing the sentence for her.

It works the other direction as well, Ramsey says. Children do need to honor their parents, he says, but not parents' financial misbehavior. "Being in control of your life and building wealth are your only hope to care for anyone else or yourself," he says. "If your parents have been responsible and you're able to help them, help them. But if they've been irresponsible with their money, you're not obligated to help."

Safety instructions

VanderToolen says the choices seniors make about helping family members remind him of the safety instructions on an airplane. The flight attendants tell the passengers that if an emergency causes the oxygen masks to drop down from the ceiling, people should first put on their own masks before helping children and others around them.

"So often these individuals decide to help someone else before themselves," VanderToolen says. "In other words, they are trying to make sure everyone else has their oxygen mask — but they don't realize their seat belt is undone and they are starving for oxygen because they don't have their own mask on."

In some of her speaking engagements, Ulrich has tried scaring younger people from relying too much on their parents' financing. "Picture yourself with your own family," she tells them. "Do you want your mother knocking on your door begging for a place to stay? Do you want her calling you up and telling you she is going to lose her house because she mortgaged the heck out of it to pay for your school?"

In Karamcheva's analysis for the Urban Institute, she noticed the leverage ratios of older Americans were rising. She divided household debt by total household assets. In 1998, on average, debt consumed 6 percent of total household assets. By 2010, that leverage ratio more than doubled, with debt consuming 13 percent of household assets.

Karamcheva says part of this may be due to the recession, but the trend began a decade earlier.

The bottom line is, senior Americans will likely be paying off debts well into their retirement years — putting undue stress on their finances. "This adds to the overall concern," Karamcheva says, "that these people, going forward, may have fewer resources to meet everyday needs."

There are things that can be done, however.

Helping yourself

In his counseling work, VanderToolen tries to help seniors identify and plug their financial leaks. "It is all about understanding your income and your expenses," VanderToolen says. "The core of financial management hasn't changed in 100 years. We just have to spend less money than we earn. It's a pretty simple concept."

Ramsey pushes the same principles.

"No matter your age, it's important to live on a budget and live on less than you make," he says. "Debt is not a tool. It adds considerable risk, and when you're retired it's important to take care of the money you have worked so hard to save."

But it isn't always enough. The enticement of things to buy and the needs of loved ones are often stronger than the frugality principles that would keep seniors out of trouble.

"Finance often comes down to matters of motivation," VanderToolen says, "not necessarily financial strategy."

Connie and Kay, however, continue to try to balance love, financial responsibility and the needs of their adult children (and 15 grandchildren).

Currently, Connie has one of her adult children staying in their basement who helps out financially. "I expect her to do something," Connie says, "but not more than she is currently capable of."

"We help people who help themselves," Kay says. "We won't help people who don't help themselves."

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