Retirement Planning and Your Finances

Credit Cards: Having a credit card is often a necessity for most senior citizens – from paying for medicine and emergencies to booking a vacation. But for seniors living on a fixed income, there are concerns about carrying a large balance from month to month and running up significant interest charges. In the worst cases, the debt becomes unmanageable and a major source of stress for the account holder and the family.

Another problem for seniors is having too many credit cards. That’s because the more cards you have, the more opportunities you have to get into debt. And that possibility could make it tougher for you to get the best deal the next time you apply for a loan, insurance, a mortgage or an apartment. Having a lot of cards also can make it harder to keep track of when your monthly payments are due or to even realize that a thief may have stolen one of your cards.

Home Equity Loans and Lines of Credit: These are loans that use the equity in your house as collateral and often are tax deductible (check with your tax advisor). The equity refers to the difference between what you owe on a house and its current market value.

A home equity loan is a one-time loan for a lump sum, typically at a fixed interest rate. A home equity line of credit works like a credit card in that you can borrow as much as you want up to a pre-set credit limit. The interest rate for a line of credit usually is variable, meaning it could increase or decrease in the future.

“For elderly people on a fixed income who have paid their mortgage in full or whose mortgage is almost paid in full, home equity loans are tempting to use to pay for expenses, but they can also be dangerous,” warned Janet Kincaid, FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Officer. “In the worst-case scenario, if you are unable to make the required loan payments, you could lose your home.”

In general, the best uses for home equity-type loans are to purchase goods or services with long-term benefits, such as home improvements that add to the value of your property. The riskiest uses of home equity loans include a vacation or a car because you could end up paying a lot in interest charges for a purchase that’s only of short-term value or has gone down in value. Also beware that some unscrupulous people or companies (including home repair contractors) push high-cost, high-risk home equity loans to elderly people and other consumers.

Reverse Mortgages: These are home equity loans available to homeowners age 62 or older. In general, a reverse mortgage is a loan that provides money that can be used for any purpose, and the principal and interest payments typically become due when you move, sell your house or die. A reverse mortgage also differs from other home loans in that you don’t need an income to qualify and you don’t have to make monthly repayments.

While reverse mortgages can be a valuable source of funds, they also have serious potential drawbacks. In particular, you will be reducing your equity, perhaps substantially, after you add in the interest costs.

“Reverse mortgages can help in some situations, such as when you have large medical bills that are not covered, to make major home repairs or to help people on low fixed-incomes make ends meet,” said Cynthia Angell, a Senior Financial Economist at the FDIC. “However, you are reducing your ownership share of the home. That means the inheritance you are leaving to your heirs could be greatly diminished or you could have far less money available for other purposes, such as buying into a retirement community later on. That’s why a reverse mortgage should usually be used as a last resort, not as an integral part of a retirement strategy.”

Also, Angell said, the fees can be high, and that could make a reverse mortgage a poor choice to cover relatively small expenses.

Life Insurance: People mostly think about life insurance as a source of income when someone dies, but they forget that many insurance policies also can be a source of cash at other times.

If you have a life insurance policy with built-up cash value, you can borrow against that money and either repay the loan with interest or reduce the death benefit accordingly. Example: If you have a $100,000 life insurance policy but you owe $20,000 on a loan from that policy, your heirs would receive $80,000 as the insurance payout.

There are other options reserved for people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and have run out of other ways to pay their expenses. One example is a life insurance policy that can pay “accelerated death benefits” to an eligible policy holder — generally up to about 50 percent of the face value of the policy — in either a lump-sum payment or monthly payments that are deducted from the policy’s face value. When the policy holder dies, the rest of the death benefit is paid out.

Another possibility is to “sell” your life insurance policy to obtain a lump-sum of about 40 to 80 percent of the face value in exchange for the right to receive the full insurance payout when you die. This is known in the insurance business as a “viatical settlement.”

These and other options for tapping life insurance policies can be complicated (including tax and other implications), and they are not right for everyone. Consider getting guidance from your state government’s insurance regulator.