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The stranglehold of debt

NATIONAL PUBLIC Radio's David Greene and Robert Smith have been hosting a series of money talks around the country this year concerning personal finances.

Michelle Singletary
Michelle SingletaryRead moreFritz Blakely

NATIONAL PUBLIC Radio's David Greene and Robert Smith have been hosting a series of money talks around the country this year concerning personal finances.

Greene, host of NPR's "Morning Edition," and Smith, correspondent for "Planet Money," start off by asking audience members and panelists who join them, myself included, "What keeps you up at night?"

For all of us, it has been one thing.


Coming in a close second was student-loan debt.

Two recent news events punctuate why we all should be concerned about our retirement readiness, even people who have been diligent financial stewards.

The first came from, which found that a significant percentage of people don't see an escape from debt. They believe they will die with it. The irony wasn't lost on me that the survey was taken this month as people piled on debt while holiday shopping.

Last year, only 9 percent of those surveyed thought they would take their debts to their graves, according to This year, the figure doubled to 18 percent. Overall, 43 percent of those with debt expect to remain indebted until 61 or older.

Now consider this news: Congress is considering a measure that could significantly cut the private pensions of some retirees who are members of multiemployer pension plans.

Last month, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. said multiemployer plans saw a more than fivefold deficit increase to $42.4 billion. This was a record for the multiemployer program, which insures the benefits of more than 10 million workers and retirees in industries such as building and construction, retail, manufacturing, trucking and transportation.

The pensions are going broke for several reasons - membership declines, an aging workforce and downturns in the stock market.

Nonetheless, advocates are fighting for retirees. The Pension Rights Center issued a statement criticizing Congress for rushing to take action in an effort to shore up the multiemployer plans.

"It is a travesty that, in the year of the 40th anniversary of the landmark pension law, ERISA, Congress is about to sweep away a central tenet of the law - that once pension benefits are earned, they cannot be reduced or cut back," Karen Friedman, the center's executive vice president, said in a statement.

But we've seen broken pension promises before. Just look at what happened in Detroit, where municipal pensioners had to accept cuts and elimination of cost-of-living increases to help save the bankrupt city.

Whatever happens with the measure concerning the multiemployer plans, the risk is real. If the program becomes insolvent, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. says it will not be able to pay guaranteed benefits.

Even the PBGC's single-employer program is running a deficit of $19.3 billion. That program insures the pensions of about 31 million workers and retirees in about 22,300 plans sponsored by private-sector employers.

So how do the two issues - the debt-until-I-die survey and pension battle - tie together?

We are increasingly on our own. Our retirement income is largely going to depend on how much we've managed to save and invest for ourselves.

Even those fortunate enough to still have traditional pensions should be making backup plans. You may very well not be able to rely on a once-ironclad agreement of a set and steady stream of income that would come faithfully until you die.

Your backup plan is to expect change. This means staying out of debt and getting rid of the debt you do have as soon as you can, including your mortgage.

Check this out: 38 percent of people in the survey have already incurred debt this holiday season. Forty-four percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64 have accumulated holiday debt, more than any other age group.

If so much of what we've come to expect in retirement could be undone or reduced, we've got to change how we handle our money. If you want to sleep better, don't embrace debt as a lifelong way of life. That's what I do to keep some of my retirement worries from keeping me awake.