Bob Withers and his wife Claire started using their credit card to get by when he lost his job of 30 years at the Ministry of Defence in 2001.
It was a lifeline when they needed it — and came in useful twice more when Bob, now 70, was made redundant from the Navy in 2007 and the fire service in 2012.
Around the time Bob left the fire service Claire, 60, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which can cause severe tiredness, muscle pain and mobility problems.
Again, their credit card proved vital to fund adaptations to the stairs in their house and the £200 monthly cost of medicines and trips to the hospital.
And as many as half of 65 to 70-year-olds don’t know the interest rate they are paying. Nearly one in ten retirees gets a bill of at least £500 a month
But by last year, nearly five years after Bob retired, the couple had racked up £31,000 of debt. The repayments left them struggling to pay for the weekly shop and to run the car they needed for Claire’s treatment.
The Withers are among thousands of British pensioners who reach retirement every year with huge debts hanging over them.
Research for Money Mail reveals that more than one in four pensioners has at least three credit cards.
And as many as half of 65 to 70-year-olds don’t know the interest rate they are paying. Nearly one in ten retirees gets a bill of at least £500 a month.
Less than half said they could live ‘comfortably’ without borrowing money. And one in 20 over-70s fears they may never be able to repay the debts, according to the survey of 3,000 over-55s by the data firm Consumer Intelligence.
Often, pensioners’ debts are accumulated as a result of divorce, illness or being made redundant. The repayments can be such a burden that some retirees struggle to pay heating and telephone bills.
Experts say most pensioners in debt struggle on in silence, worried what others would think, meaning the scale of the problem goes unnoticed. James Daley, founder of consumer group Fairer Finance, says; ‘This is a huge and growing problem and we will see more and more people start their retirement with big debts hanging over them.
‘If you’re in the red, it’s vital to do something about it because, if you don’t, your retirement could turn sour quite quickly.’
Bob and Claire battled with their debts for years before acting on a TV advertisement for so-called equity release from their home.
Research for Money Mail reveals that more than one in four pensioners has at least three credit cards
These loans are similar to a regular mortgage, except usually the interest is rolled up so you don’t make any monthly repayments and the debt is cleared after you die.
However, this means they are expensive. Your debt typically doubles every 12 years, effectively putting any inheritance you are able to leave your children at risk.
Bob, who sought expert advice from specialists Key Retirement, says he has no regrets. ‘I used to go to bed worrying about our credit card debt and then I would wake up worrying about it. In the end I thought this is not worth it, it’s not living. So we went for the equity release.’
Jonathan Chesterman, of debt charity StepChange, says: ‘Equity release can be an option for some, but there are other, often less expensive, options.’ He recommends spring cleaning your finances. Cancel unused subscriptions for the gym or a wine club and switch all your bills.
You could be paying hundreds of pounds a year too much for your energy, car insurance and broadband.
If you have the internet, use comparison websites such as MoneySuperMarket or GoCompare to look for the best deals.
Also check whether you’re are entitled to unclaimed benefits at stepchange.entitledto.co.uk. You can use any cash you free up to pay down debts.
Next, call your lender. Many banks and building societies will reduce your monthly payments, renegotiate your interest rate or give you a payment holiday if you’re struggling to manage your debts.
Typically, your bank will ask you to fill out an income and expenditure form to work out how much money you have left each month to pay your debts. If there is little left to play with, then your lender may renegotiate the terms of your loan.
Another option is to consolidate your debts into one monthly payment. If you are paying 20 per cent on £10,000 of credit card debt, you could save more than £4,600 in interest over five years by switching to M&S Bank’s top 2.8 per cent personal loan instead.
Or you could move your debt to a 0 per cent balance transfer card. This will give you some breathing space as you chip away at your debts.
Barclaycard (0800 161 5308) and Post Office (0345 722 3355) offer 0 per cent deals for up to 37 months.
For those with big debts, equity release can prove effective. Money Mail has produced a guide to equity release, called Unlocking The Cash From Your Home, to explain how these work in more detail. To order your free copy, call 0800 156 0150 or visit keyretirement.co.uk/mail.
For more advice, try Citizens Advice (0300 330 1313) or StepChange (0800 138 1111).
If your debt problem is severe, you may need to file for bankruptcy. Most of your debt will be written off, but only after assets such as your car, home and expensive jewellery are sold.
When you go bankrupt, it stays on your record for six years, making it difficult to get credit. It should be seen as a last resort.
Editor’s Credit card deals Of the week
Representative example: If you spend £200 at a purchase interest rate of 18.9% p.a. (variable) your representative rate will be 18.9% APR (variable). Credit limits and terms may vary based on your individual circumstances. Balance transfer offers and introductory fees limited to transfer made with 60/90 days of account opening. See product specific T&Cs. * must spend £1k within 3 months