Despite your best savings efforts — and maybe due to some unexpected expenses — your retirement plans may have run into the stark reality that you didn’t end up with the nest egg you had planned on.
In fact, you’re headed toward your golden years with credit card debt.
Unfortunately, that’s the case for many Americans — 46% of retirees have non-mortgage debt (that includes credit card debt, as well as auto loans, student loans and medical debt), according to a survey by the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies. And 14% of them hold $10,000 or more in debt.
Without your former income, you may be starting to worry about making the growing credit card payments on a fixed income, particularly when the average Social Security monthly benefit was $1,543 as of January 2021.
Putting a dent — permanently — in credit card debt when you’re retired is possible, and we have eight ways to help get you started on the path to a debt-free retirement.
8 Ways to Help Pay Down Credit Card Debt in Retirement
Retirement offers unique opportunities and challenges when you’re paying off debt.
You may have new sources of income, like Social Security or a pension, and new expenses, like increased health care costs or, on the other end of the spectrum, fun hobbies.
So here are eight post-employment strategies that can help you pay down debt.
1. Make a Budget
Tackling credit card payment as you approach retirement starts by re-examining your budget.
Making changes to your lifestyle and using your free time to save money is a good place to start, according to Joseph Valenti, senior policy advisor with the AARP Public Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C.
“One thing we know from studies of retirement is that people have fewer set costs typically compared to when they were working,” he said. “If they have more time, maybe they will be preparing more meals at home.”
If you need help getting started, check out our guide to creating a retirement budget.
Once you know where you stand financially, you can start looking for ways to cut the credit card balance.
2. Negotiate With Credit Card Companies
The best way to know where you stand is to look at the numbers — in this case, the interest rate on your cards. It’s easier to pay down a debt if you’re accumulating less interest on top of the original amount (learn more about compound interest).
Asking your credit card company for a new rate is one option, particularly if you’re ready to commit to living credit card-free going forward, Valenti said.
“In some cases, even if you close that card, they will let you pay it down for little or no interest over a period of time,” Valenti said. “That’s assuming you don’t need the card again.”
When you call the credit card company, the first person you talk to may not be able to help you, even if they think they can. Ask to speak with a manager who handles settlement arrangements.
If the reasons for your credit card debt are temporary — an extended illness in the family, for instance — consider asking your issuer about credit card hardship programs to help you recover.
And if you’re too overwhelmed to deal with the creditors themselves, consider reaching out to a credit counselor, who can help you organize your accounts and may negotiate a lower interest rate for you.
3. Transfer Your Balance to a New Card
Loyalty isn’t necessarily rewarding. If you’ve had the same card for years, transferring your balance to a new card could give you a lower interest rate than your current provider can offer. Reap the most benefits by paying down as much debt as you can during the promotional period.
When you’re considering which card to go with, compare this information for all offers:
Fees (typically at least $5 to $10 or 3% to 5% of the balance)
Interest (look for 0%)
Duration of the promotional APR (usually 12 to 18 months)
Credit score requirements (generally good or excellent)
Credit limits (make sure it’s more than your current balance)
Check out the debt lasso method for tips on saving the most money when using a balance transfer.
4. Cut (Former) Work-Related Expenses
Still hanging on to that gym membership, even though you only signed up because it was close to your office?
By reviewing your monthly, periodic and annual budgets, you may discover work-related expenses that have become so habitual you’ve forgotten about them, according to Valenti, who gave transportation, clothing and cell phone expenses as examples.
Cancel subscriptions to professional associations and other automatic billings associated with work (an ink cartridge subscription, for instance) to avoid getting stuck paying for services you no longer need. If you have trouble keeping up with recurring payments, consider using a subscription tracking tool.
And if you still enjoy hitting the gym, cut costs by asking about senior discounts — AARP has many for its members.
5. Set Up Self-Imposed Limits
Before retirement, those little expenses that broke your budget one month may have been easier to cushion with your regular paycheck. And remembering them all may have been a little easier a few years ago.
To help you track the expenses and avoid unwanted surprises at the end of the month, Valenti suggested setting up alerts from your bank or credit card provider.
“It’s one thing to find out instantly through a text that you’ve reached a limit — even if it’s a self-imposed limit — as opposed to a statement that’s going to shock you at the end of a cycle,” Valenti said.
You can download your financial institution’s phone apps and use the features to track your finances and receive instant alerts.
6. Ask for Professional (Financial) Help
If you’re overwhelmed by managing your day-to-day finances or fear forgetting to pay bills and sinking further in debt, consider hiring a daily money manager.
In addition to tracking bills, daily money managers can help you with balancing your checkbook, collecting tax documents, dealing with medical bills and even avoiding scams.
The American Association of Daily Money Managers features a searchable database on its website.
7. Make Extra Money on Your Empty Nest
Now that the kids have moved out (hopefully), you’re stuck with that big, empty house.
One option for making money is to sell it and downsize to a smaller place, then use the profits to pay off credit card debt. But moving still requires an outlay of cash and can add additional stress as you’re adjusting to retired life.
Another option is to use the equity in your home to pay off your debts. Home equity loans, home equity lines of credit and even reverse mortgages are all options, but you’re still trading one debt for another.
And although home equity borrowing options may offer a much more attractive interest rate, remember that if you can’t make these payments, the lender can take your house.
If you’re seeking something a little less drastic, think about new ways to use your house — and its contents — to earn some cash today, advises Moira Somers, a wealth psychologist based in Winnipeg, Canada, and the author of “Advice That Sticks: How to Give Financial Advice That People Will Follow.”
“Look at the resources you have and say, ‘Could this turn into money somehow?’” she said. “One of the cool things about this period in our life is that there are sometimes ways we can make extra money that wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago.”
Consider, for instance, all those buried treasures in the attic. (Did you know that Urban Outfitters sells cassette tapes for $15 a pop? Yep, that’s a thing.)
One of the cool things about this period in our life is that there are sometimes ways we can make extra money that wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago.
Somers notes taking a complete inventory of your assets — both physical and mental — can help you discover ways to pay down debt you may not have thought of before.
“Do that inventory not only of [your] job readiness skills and social network and what that might be able to help,” Somers said. “But also to look at your existing possessions and how might they be turned into either an income stream or a little bit of a cash infusion.”
8. Earn Extra Money by Working From Home
When all else fails, there’s always work. But that doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the 9-to-5 grind.
Getting a work-from-home side gig in retirement provides extra money to pay off credit cards without the costs and hassle of your former commute to the office.
In addition to the income, a side job can help stave off the boredom — and resulting spending — that comes from suddenly having extra hours in the day.
And that should leave you plenty of time to enjoy some well-earned relaxation.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here.