Wharton Pension Research Council Working Papers

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Working Paper

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We analyze older individuals’ debt and financial vulnerability using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the National Financial Capability Study (NFCS). Specifically, in the HRS we examine three different cohorts (individuals age 56–61) in 1992, 2004, and 2010 to evaluate cross-cohort changes in debt over time. We also use two waves of the NFCS (2012 and 2015) to gain additional insights into debt management and older individuals’ capacity to shield themselves against shocks. We show that recent cohorts have taken on more debt and face more financial insecurity, mostly due to having purchased more expensive homes with smaller down payments.


Opinions and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of the funders or any other institutions with which the authors are affiliated.

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All findings, interpretations, and conclusions of this paper represent the views of the author(s) and not those of the Wharton School or the Pension Research Council. © 2017 Pension Research Council of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.


The authors thank Yong Yu for expert programming and research assistance. Additionally, they thank Melinda Morrill, participants at the 2016 Working Longer and Retirement conference at SIEPR/Stanford University, and at the CMV/OECD Seminar on Emerging Trends in Financial Education, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for suggestions and comments. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the TIAA Institute and the Pension Research Council/Boettner Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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Date Posted: 13 February 2019