3. Consider bankruptcy

If you're using retirement savings to pay debts, stop right now. "The credit card companies are going to be able to survive. But it's kind of an open question whether you will," says Weston.

Weston's rule of thumb: Get help if your debts equal half of your income. She suggests finding a credit counselor through the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling and a bankruptcy attorney from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Many older people have a particularly strong a sense of honor. They may spend retirement savings or drain home equity to keep paying unmanageable debts. Many of them don't realize that their 401k accounts and individual retirement accounts are protected from creditors in bankruptcy, says bankruptcy attorney Billy Brewer, Jr., the president of the NACBA.

Brewer also tells his Raleigh, N.C., clients to throw in the towel if they're using credit cards to pay bills.

"I would say seniors are the primary demographic that wait too long," he says. By filing for bankruptcy sooner and protecting retirement savings, they'll have more savings to protect them from poverty in old age.

Bankruptcy laws are complex. You'll need an attorney. There are two types of bankruptcy, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Brewer charges, for example, $1,500 to $2,000, on average, for Chapter 7 and $3,000 for Chapter 13. An initial consultation with a bankruptcy attorney often is free or discounted.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, your debts are erased and you're allowed to keep "exempt" property, including a car, retirement accounts and household furnishings.

Home equity is exempt, too, which is why it's a mistake to use it to pay debts. However, the amount of home equity that you're allowed to keep varies widely. In North Carolina, for example, the limit is $35,000, in Massachusetts, it's $500,000, and Florida has no limit.

With Chapter 13, which may be the choice if you have more home equity than your state protects, you agree to a repayment plan spanning a maximum of five years. Afterward, the remaining debt is forgiven.

4. Downsize

To rescue your retirement, take a hard look at income and living expenses. You'll have more choices if you act early. Choices are usually more limited when your back is against the wall.

Start with housing, probably your biggest expense. Consider new possibilities -- selling your home and renting, for instance. Or buying a smaller, cheaper home. Or inviting a renter to share your home and help generate some income.

Vernon says his daughter, when she was a student, rented a room in an older couple's home. They enjoyed each other's company and looked out for one another.

PulteGroup, a homebuilders company, surveyed 1,000 homeowners and found that a third were expecting parents or adult children to move in at some point. If inviting family to live with you is not the solution, maybe you can move in with them. Or share a home with friends.

Happiness at this stage of life means aligning dreams and expectations with reality, says Mary A. Brooks, owner of Brooks Financial Planning in Colorado Springs, Colo.

That's not to say it's easy. "It may mean moving from a high-cost-of-living area of the country, selling cherished assets, and exploring the reality of Medicaid and subsidized senior housing," Brooks says.

5. Get stellar advice

Most financial planners focus on investment planning -- accumulating a big nest egg and then safeguarding and deploying it. If you're retiring broke or nearly so, investment advice isn't very useful to you.

Your best bet, if you have a tiny nest egg, is to avoid advisers who charge commissions and fees for assets under management. Look for those who charge a flat hourly or per-project rate at the Garrett Planning Network and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. What's more, you should find one with experience helping others who're retiring on a budget.

"A lot of planners are focused on the accumulation phase and may not have much experience with actual retirement issues. So I'd ask them who their typical client is and whether they've worked much with retirees or near-retirees," Weston says.

Vernon looks for one of three credentials: certified financial planner, chartered financial analyst or a certified public account who has earned a personal financial specialist designation. The industry is full of various credentials, some of which are worthless. Ask friends who have issues and finances similar to yours for referrals to advisers they have used.

Interview candidates, asking specifics about their experience with issues like yours and ask for references, again, from clients with issues similar to yours. Thoroughly understand the fees.

As Celia Brugge, a Memphis, Tenn., certified financial planner, tells some of her clients, "It's not that you will never be able to retire at all. However, it may look different than you anticipated."

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