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The New Face of Debt

For retirees, the golden years have become a series of tough compromises. The trouble is, a lack of employment income combined with debt stalk the good times they thought they would have after they left their careers.
One case study stated their jobs paid them a total of about $100,000 per year. Today, as a result of too much house and the repairs it entails — repainting, new floors, new electrical circuits, new kitchen counters, custom French doors and other elegances — they carry a debt of almost $70,000, nearly twice their retirement income of $37,000 a year.
If they pay off the debt, they will face a cash shortage. They could do it, but it would wipe out all of their RRSPs and other retirement assets built up over their working lives. A tough choice.
“We used to think that our house would go up enough in price to cover our debts,” they explain. “But I don’t think you can rely on that.”
Their situation could be resolved by selling the house, yet they fear that having paid too much in renovations, even downsizing might leave them house broke — with a nice abode and nothing else.
“As I approach the age of 60, I don’t want to carry so much debt. There has to be an end to the debt. I want my mind to be clear that when we get our Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, we will be able to keep those benefits. We don’t want to go into our sunset years paying off our debts.”
First was Investors Group, which said 62% plan to carry debt such as a mortgage into their golden years. Then Royal Bank of Canada came out with its Ipsos Reid poll, which found four in 10 Canadians retired with some form of debt, and one in four began retirement with a mortgage on their primary residence.
“More and more, Canadians are carrying debt into retirement,” said Lee Anne Davies, head of retirement strategies at RBC.
Just this week, BMO Financial Group noted less than half of Canadians 55 and over have a post-retirement income strategy in place and only a third have considered that they might outlive their savings.
It’s a new and dangerous trend.
The risk of senior bankruptcy grows with age. A study for the Canadian Institute of Actuaries released June 2007, shows that longevity risk — the chance of living to a very ripe old age — poses the problem of running out of personal savings.
It would be wrong to label all debt foolish and all debtors in peril of financial catastrophe, argues Tina DiVito, head of retirement solutions at BMO Financial Group. “There is bad debt and good debt. Bad debt may be what one borrowed for a transitory pleasure, such as a vacation, after which the borrower has to pay high interest rates and gets no tax breaks.
“Good debt bears moderate rates of interest and is payable in a reasonable time period, perhaps as a part of an investment that makes interest tax-deductible,” Ms. DiVito says.
For good debt, consider the case of 61-year-old Montreal retiree Ioanna Jakus, who has maintained a mid-six figure investment portfolio while living on an after-tax income of less than $2,000 per month.
A former bank employee, she has a $10,000 line of credit with her stock broker. “I use the line to buy stocks and bonds,” she says. “I can deduct the interest I pay from my taxable income. My investments have been successful and have more than paid the cost of credit. What’s more, rates of interest are so low that borrowing to invest just makes sense for me.”
Not only has Ms. Jakus made intelligent use of credit, she has done so expertly, selecting low-risk GICs, bonds and blue-chip stocks with strong dividends. “I have always been motivated by the knowledge that only I can control my destiny,” she explains. “My husband and I paid off the mortgage — that was when interest rates were near 20% — and we never borrowed again for spending.
“Of course, I can clear my investment debt in a moment by using cash in one of my accounts. My philosophy has always been not to take risks that I cannot afford, especially when it comes to borrowing money.
“Nobody can look after me as well as I can,” she adds.
That’s a lesson a lot of retirees have yet to learn.

Andrew Allentuck, Financial Post ·

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