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More and more Americans are stumbling through their final working years carrying a heavy debt burden. Those hoping for a long and happy retirement need to find a way to lighten the load.

Mortgages and credit card debt, along with the financial needs of college-age children and elderly parents, are taking a heavy toll on baby boomers and older retirees. Nearly half of boomers expect to retire with debt, according to a recent survey by Fidelity Investments.

Over the past two years, there has been a 27% spike in the number of retirees seeking help from members of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, says David Jones, the group's president. "Older people, especially retired people, are the biggest growth area we've seen," Jones says. He notes that "it's a very serious situation," since seniors often have health problems and limited ability to return to work.

For many older people, the debt burden is growing intolerable. People 55 and older accounted for 28.6% of bankruptcy filers in 2011, up from 22.9% in 2008, according to the Institute for Financial Literacy, a nonprofit education organization.

In years past, older people often found it easy to borrow their way out of a tight financial spot -- perhaps using a home equity line of credit to pay off high-interest debt. But because the financial crisis devastated home values as well as retirement accounts, many seniors find that safety net has dropped away. With emergency funds depleted and little time to recover from market losses, many retirees end up charging basic living expenses on credit cards. To make matters worse, financially strapped seniors are prime targets for mortgage modification scams, pricey loans pitched as bank "overdraft protection" and "debt settlement" programs that in some cases only dig consumers into a deeper hole.

Even if you've never struggled to pay the bills, you can boost your retirement security by learning to spot the debt traps that tend to snare retirees. And for those already burdened with debt, a host of resources are available to help you move toward retirement with a lighter step.

The burden of credit cards

Whether coping with rising health care costs, investment losses or family obligations, many seniors come to the same conclusion: Credit cards are the only way to make ends meet.

In a recent survey of low- and middle-income households carrying credit card balances, research and advocacy group Demos found that people 65 and up have more credit card debt than any other age group -- nearly $9,300, on average. And while younger folks have unloaded much of their debt burden since the financial crisis, seniors' debt level has barely budged.

A worst-case scenario -- credit card debt leading to bankruptcy -- is becoming all too common among seniors. In a study of the significant increase in bankruptcy filings among older Americans, John Pottow, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, found that these debtors most often cite credit card interest and fees as the cause of their financial problems.

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When faced with overwhelming credit card bills, focus on paying down the debt with the highest interest rate first. And if it will take more than a few months to pay off the cards, consider consolidating your balances on a card offering a 0% interest rate -- bearing in mind that you could face a steep rate increase when the promotional period is over.

Be wary of credit card "add on" products pitched by telemarketers. Regulators in recent months have cracked down on major card issuers for deceptive marketing of such products as credit monitoring or "payment protection," which promises to let consumers suspend payments for a limited time in event of unemployment, hospitalization or other troubles. Some consumers were signed up without their consent, the regulators found.

Review your bank and credit card statements regularly for any unusual charges. And if you're interested in any bank or credit card services, get the information in writing rather than signing up over the phone.

Don't hesitate to ask for help. Seniors seeking to conceal financial problems from family members or friends may be attracted to the anonymity of credit cards -- and drawn into overwhelming debt. "Rather than have an awkward conversation with the kids or asking someone else for help, they're borrowing to finance consumption," Pottow says.

Mortgage-debt pitfalls

Paying off the mortgage before you hit retirement may be a worthy goal. Given today's rock-bottom yields on savings accounts and certificates of deposit, you'll likely save more money eliminating mortgage interest payments than by stashing cash in the bank. But homeowners near retirement shouldn't accelerate mortgage payments if it means ignoring other high-interest debt or cutting their cash cushion to the quick. Also, if you withdraw from a 401k or traditional IRA to pay off the debt, taxes due on the distribution will counteract the benefits of paying down the mortgage.

Over the past two decades, a steadily growing number of homeowners have been carrying mortgage debt well into their retirement years, according to a recent study by AARP. And among those age 50 and older, 6% of mortgage loans were seriously delinquent in 2011, up from 1.1% in 2007, AARP found. "I don't think people are making a conscious decision to carry debt," says Lori Trawinski, senior strategic policy adviser at AARP Public Policy Institute and author of the study. "People have no choice, because they have other obligations they need to take care of." Many older people have relied on home equity to cover health care, home repairs and other big-ticket items.

Some seniors struggling to make mortgage payments may be able to downsize to a smaller home and slash their maintenance, insurance and tax bills at the same time. Alternatively, those who have good credit may be able to take advantage of today's low interest rates and refinance their mortgage. If you are current on your mortgage payments but having trouble refinancing because the value of your home has dropped, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) may help. This federal program, which is available for mortgages owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, helps borrowers refinance even if they owe more than the value of their home.

For information on HARP and other programs designed to help homeowners, go to MakingHomeAffordable.gov. Also get in touch with a government-approved housing counselor by calling 888-995-4673

Be wary of advertisements or other promotions promising to help you modify your mortgage or avoid foreclosure. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently reviewed hundreds of mortgage-related ads, particularly those targeting seniors and veterans, and found that many misrepresented a government affiliation or promoted misleadingly low rates. And if a mortgage-relief firm asks for money upfront, "that's a huge warning sign," says consumer debt expert Steve Rhode, who runs the Web site GetOutofDebt.org. Under Federal Trade Commission rules that took effect in 2011, firms offering mortgage assistance aren't allowed to charge upfront fees -- although there's a loophole for some services offered by lawyers.

A reverse mortgage, which allows a homeowner 62 or older to convert some home equity into cash, can make sense for some seniors who understand the risks. The loan must be repaid with accumulated interest when the borrower dies, sells the home or no longer uses it as his primary residence. There are no monthly principal or interest payments while the homeowner lives in the house, but the borrower must stay current on tax and insurance premiums. "We see people coming to us in a panic" after taking a reverse mortgage and being threatened with foreclosure because they don't have the money to pay the taxes, says Jones of the credit counseling agency group. A government-approved housing counselor can help you weigh a reverse mortgage against other options.

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