Spokane Journal of Business

Consumers blind to debt, study shows

Many participants in poll didn’t regard at least one common obligation as debt

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The greatest risk to financial security during retirement may be the debt consumers dont see today.

An online survey of consumers conducted earlier this year found that 46 percent declined to classify as debt at least one common financial obligation, such as outstanding balances on credit cards or home-equity lines of credit, overdue utility bills, or even payday loans from friends or family members.

In fact, 11 percent of respondents with debt didnt consider themselves to be in debt.

The survey included both retired and working respondents.

Forty-three percent of the working respondents said debt would affect their ability to save for a comfortable retirement a great deal, and 32 percent of those who have debt said they cut back on their retirement savings as a result of their debt.

Meanwhile, 52 percent of the responding retirees acknowledged they were in debt when they entered retirement.

Respondents with the heaviest debt loads were most likely to express feelings of financial insecurity.

Its understood that Americans have debt, but whats surprising is the impact of debt on their ability to prepare financially for retirement, says Kerry Geurkink, director of annuity marketing for St. Paul, Minn.-based Securian Retirement, which commissioned the survey. The challenge of finding the right balance between todays living and tomorrows security becomes larger when consumers either dont acknowledge or simply dont understand the extent of their debt.

DebtThe Blind Spot on Americas Road to Retirement: Securians Multi-Generational Study was conducted by Washington D.C.-based Mathew Greenwald & Associates, which polled more than 2,000 consumers of widely varying ages.

Respondents overall indicated that their top two financial goals were paying off debt and saving for retirement, orfor retireesensuring a comfortable retirement for the rest of their lives. Working respondents with less than $2,500 in non-mortgage debt were much more likely to concentrate on the latter goal than respondents with higher debts. Also, while seven in 10 respondents said that disposing of debt was a strong priority, only four in 10 actually paid down more debt than they added during a 12-month period.

Retired respondents offered evidence that the debt concerns of working respondents were justified. More than half retired with non-mortgage debt, and about one in four said that their debt equaled or surpassed their savings and investments at retirement time. Thirty-eight percent said their current debt loads affect retirement security a great deal.

The survey indicated that baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and silent generation respondents, born between 1925 and 1942, who havent already retired may face a surprise as they prepare to leave the working world: 26 percent of baby boomer respondents and 33 percent of silent generation respondents expected to carry non-mortgage debt into retirement, but 52 percent of actual retirees reported that they retired with such debts.

More than anything, this survey points to the need for consumers to head toward retirement with their eyes wide open, Geurkink says. Take a hard, honest look at your debt and how its affecting your ability to save for the future. Resources such as financial advisers, debt counseling, and other financial tools can help you assess your situation and find the right balance.

Securian Retirement, a unit of Securian Financial Group, Inc., administers more than 3,300 retirement plans nationwide with more than $10 billion in assets. Securian Retirement offers annuities and retirement plans underwritten by Minnesota Life Insurance Co., a Securian affiliate.

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