Senior couple sitting on beach © Ariel Skelley, Blend Images, Getty Images

While the G.I. generation (those who fought in World War II) avoided debt and saved the majority of their incomes, today's retiring baby boomers are hardly approaching retirement in the manner of their parents. According to several recent studies and polls, it seems that despite vanishing pensions, low 401k balances and threats to Social Security and other welfare programs, many retiring baby boomers have no desire to give up their current lifestyles.

This new trend of carrying debt into retirement could be the new normal, as poor planning, unforeseen emergencies and a lack of desire to downsize take precedent in boomers' retirement plans.

Credit card, student loans and mortgage debt

Many financial pundits and retirement experts worry that the baby boomers -- better known for spending than for saving -- could face an economic train wreck when it comes to retirement. Many are planning to keep on spending -- even if that means going into debt to maintain their current lifestyles.

According to a new poll commissioned by Canadian bank CIBC, about one-quarter of retiring baby boomers surveyed expect to carry some debt into their retirement. More importantly, roughly 80% of those surveyed indicated that they have no plans to pay off their debt anytime soon and would stay in debt throughout their retirement. While the study focused on Canadian participants, a similar trend is occurring here in the United States.

In generations past, conventional wisdom was to pay off your large debts prior to retirement. That way, retirement savings and portfolios -- mainly consisting of fixed income investments -- would not be encumbered by large payments, such as mortgages, credit cards or student loan debt. However, many U.S. boomers are taking another route.

Using U.S. government data, the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., found that between 1992 and 2007, the percentage of households with people in their mid-50s and older that were carrying housing and consumer debt rose from 53.8% to 63%. Further, for those aged 55 to 64, nearly 82% were carrying debt. The level of debt was higher, too. According to EBRI, the average overall debt for these 55-and-older households more than doubled (to $70,370) in that period.

While some of this debt could be attributed to rising health care costs, as well as student loan debt held from their children, a growing number of analysts also blame boomer efforts to keep up their lifestyles in retirement. Rising consumer and mortgage debt suggests that boomers believe their retirement incomes will be sufficient to support their desired lifestyles as well as service outstanding debts over the long haul. The idea of boomers letting their heirs deal with the aftermath of their debts is also gaining prevalence.

A smarter strategy

Baby boomers who are entering their golden years with large debts are doing a disservice to their retirement. While it may seem like a good idea to keep the boat and continue paying for it into retirement, the truth is that it’s not. A debt-free start to retirement is a sound strategy.

Retiring with minimal or no debt is one of the most effective ways to make your retirement savings go further. Minimizing or eliminating debt in retirement reduces interest costs and immediately increases cash flow. Likewise, downsizing to a smaller home or apartment is a great way to reduce mortgage costs and utility bills.

The bottom line

Use the years leading up to retirement to your advantage. Paying off debt and boosting contributions to savings will help you continue enjoying your current lifestyle better than paying a creditor each month will. While emergencies do happen, careful planning and saving are still the best ways to stay out of the retirement debt trap.

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