A Credit Card Guide for Older Adults and Retirees

Credit cards can benefit older adults in retirement when used responsibly. Selecting the right card, avoiding scams and managing debt is key to leveraging benefits while preventing financial distress.

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Last Updated: 11/14/2023
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Credit cards offer a range of benefits appealing to diverse age groups, including older adults and retirees. A 2022 report by Experian reveals that consumers aged 40 to 74 hold, on average, over four credit card accounts. The need for a credit card in your golden years or retirement largely depends on your unique financial situation. Credit cards can be financial safeguards if you have steady income streams like Social Security, pensions or investments. Responsible management is vital to leveraging their benefits while avoiding financial risks.

Should Older Adults Get a Credit Card?

Credit cards can be both an asset and a liability in your golden years. They offer convenient payment options, emergency financial cushions and valuable rewards programs, but poor management can negatively impact your finances. Assess your financial situation and needs carefully to determine whether a credit card is right for you in retirement.

When Credit Cards Benefit Older Adults and Retirees

Having a credit card can be especially advantageous for older adults and retirees in specific situations, such as:

  • graphCard icon

    If You Want to Build and Maintain Credit

    A credit card can help you maintain and improve your credit score, which is often crucial for financial flexibility as you age. Responsible use can lead to a higher score, facilitating loan or insurance approvals.

  • discount icon

    If You Prioritize Rewards and Discounts

    Targeted rewards from credit cards can offer substantial savings, especially if you have set shopping routines. Rewards and discounts are particularly beneficial if you're on a fixed income.

  • firstAidKit icon

    If You Need a Financial Safety Net

    A credit card can provide an immediate financial cushion for unexpected expenses like medical emergencies or urgent home repairs, sparing your savings or retirement funds, provided you can repay the balance before interest accrues.

When Credit Cards May Not Benefit Older Adults and Retirees

Credit cards offer numerous benefits, but there are scenarios where they may not be ideal for older adults and retirees, such as:

  • debtConsolidation icon

    If Managing Credit Debt Is Challenging

    Limited or fixed income in retirement increases the risk of accumulating unmanageable debt. If you foresee challenges in paying off balances, a credit card may not be suitable.

  • highInterestAPR icon

    If High Interest Rates and Fees Are a Concern

    Credit cards can have high interest rates and fees that negate any rewards or benefits. The costs could outweigh the benefits if you're likely to carry a balance.

  • piggyBank icon

    If You Have Sufficient Financial Resources

    Ample savings or financial assets may reduce the need for a credit card.

Selecting the Right Credit Card for Retirement

Various options are available if you want a credit card during your retirement years. Focus on cards with low annual fees and interest rates to minimize the financial burden, and pick one that aligns with your lifestyle. Comparing different options is crucial in making the best choice for your financial situation and lifestyle needs. Here are some key features to consider:

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    Low or No Annual Fees

    Many older adults are on a fixed income, so minimizing unnecessary expenses is important. Choose cards with low or no annual fees to avoid spending just to have the card.

  • cashBack icon

    Cash Back Rewards

    Opt for credit cards that offer cash back on everyday expenses like groceries and gas. Cash back rewards can be a great way to save on purchases and help you stretch a fixed income in retirement.

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    Simple Rewards Structure

    A straightforward rewards structure makes understanding and redeeming rewards easier.

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    Introductory Offers

    Some cards offer initial rewards, including cash bonuses and introductory APR offers. Ensure you can meet the spending requirements to qualify for these perks and pay off the balance before the 0% APR period ends without stretching your budget.

  • airplane icon

    Travel Benefits

    If you plan to travel, look for cards that offer travel rewards, insurance and no foreign transaction fees.

  • giveMoney icon

    Ease of Approval

    Cards with less stringent approval criteria can be beneficial, especially if your income has decreased post-retirement.

  • shakingHands icon

    Customer Service

    Accessible and responsive customer service is crucial, especially for resolving issues or answering questions.

  • onlineForms icon

    Online Management Tools

    Opt for cards that offer robust online management tools for easier account monitoring and bill payment.

  • theftSecurity icon

    Fraud Protection

    Ensure the card has robust fraud protection to safeguard your financial information.

Ways to Enhance Credit Card Approval Odds in Retirement

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) ensures that all creditworthy individuals have an equal chance to obtain credit, regardless of age. This law prohibits age-based discrimination in any aspect of a credit transaction. While the credit card application process is generally the same for everyone, certain strategies can enhance your approval odds.


Understand Income Sources

During the credit card application process, you're required to report your annual income. Income isn't limited to a traditional salary; it can include Social Security benefits, income from a spouse or partner, investments, part-time or seasonal jobs, dividends and interest.


Monitor Your Credit Score

Know your credit score before applying. If your score is below 660, be extra cautious in your credit card search. Check your credit report regularly for errors and dispute them immediately if found.


Limit Applications

When you apply for a credit card, it affects your credit score. Applying for many cards at once can decrease your credit score and deter lenders.


Become an Authorized User

If a family or friend has a strong credit history, consider asking them to add you as an authorized user on their credit card. This strategy can give your credit score a quick boost.


Use a Secured Credit Card

Secured credit cards require an upfront deposit, acting as your credit limit. They can be instrumental in building credit, especially if you're starting from scratch or recovering from past credit issues.


Explore Credit-Building Loans

Credit-builder loans hold the borrowed amount in a bank account while you make payments. This type of loan can help improve your credit scores and add variety to your credit mix, enhancing your creditworthiness.

Common Reasons for Application Denial

Credit card companies assess your credit history and other factors besides your income when you apply for a credit card to gain a comprehensive overview of your eligibility. Here are the common reasons why your credit card application may be rejected:

  • money2 icon

    Insufficient Income

    Lenders evaluate your income to gauge credit management. Make sure to include all income sources like Social Security and part-time work.

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    Inconsistent Income

    Irregular income streams can cast doubt on your ability to make consistent payments.

  • defaultinOnALoan icon

    High Existing Debt

    Excessive existing debt can signal a higher risk of default, making lenders cautious.

  • noBag icon

    Negative Financial History

    Past financial missteps like late payments or bankruptcies can severely affect your application.

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    Limited Credit History

    A sparse or non-existent credit history gives lenders little to assess your creditworthiness.

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    Multiple Recent Inquiries

    Numerous recent credit checks can indicate financial instability, making lenders hesitant.

  • uninsured icon

    Application Errors

    Ensure the accuracy of all information on your application to avoid denial due to discrepancies.

Strategic Credit Card Use for Retirement

Responsible credit card use can provide a financial safety net and flexibility in retirement. Here are some strategies to make the most of this financial tool:


Understand Terms and Fees

Know your card's terms to avoid unexpected fees and understand your billing statements.


Read the Fine Print

Before applying, understand any bonuses, expiration dates or qualifications you must meet.


Spend Within Your Means

Treat your credit card like cash. Only charge what you can afford to pay off monthly to avoid interest unless it's an absolute emergency.


Plan to Pay Off Balances

Aim to clear your balance monthly to avoid interest. If that's not possible, pay as much over the minimum as possible to minimize interest.


Monitor Account Activity

Regularly check your transactions to spot unauthorized activity and manage your budget more effectively.


Leverage Rewards and Cash Back

Use your card's reward points and cash back offers for added savings. Don't carry a balance just to earn rewards as the interest could outweigh the benefits.

Identifying and Avoiding Scams for Older Adults

Older adults can be targets for scams. Awareness of common credit card scams provides an extra layer of protection. Here's how to protect yourself from elder financial fraud:


Understand Types of Scams

Be wary of government impersonations, lottery sweepstakes and robocalls, which are common scam tactics.


Be Cautious With Calls

Ignore calls asking for credit card details. Urgent or too-good-to-be-true calls are often scams.


Verify Caller Identity

If the caller claims to be from a reputable organization, hang up and call back on a verified number to confirm.


Guard Your Information

Never share credit card or personal details via phone or email unless you know the recipient.


Monitor Statements

Regularly check your credit card activity for unauthorized transactions and report discrepancies immediately.

By staying vigilant and informed, you can protect yourself from scams.

Paying Off Credit Card Debt as a Retiree

Managing credit card debt in retirement requires a strategic approach to protect your finances. While debt can be burdensome, retirees have options and protections. For example, debt collectors can't seize Social Security income. Strategies like debt consolidation and payment plans can help you manage your debt during retirement.

Contact Your Credit Card Companies

If you're struggling with paying your credit card debt, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends contacting your creditors. Before calling, outline your financial situation and why you can't make minimum payments. Ask about forbearance programs, eligibility criteria and options for lowering interest rates. Creditors often have hardship programs for natural disasters, job loss, or medical emergencies. Remember that approved skipped payments may result in accrued interest and affect your credit score.

Debt Consolidation Loans

If you have a good credit score, a debt consolidation loan could be an option to pay off credit card debt. These loans often come with lower interest rates, saving you money. However, consider both the benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side, these loans are unsecured, so you won't risk losing property if you can't make payments. On the negative side, poor credit could disqualify you, and upfront fees might offset any interest savings. Thoroughly explore your options to find a debt consolidation plan that suits your financial situation.

Debt Management Plans

A debt management plan consolidates your credit card payments into a monthly installment, usually at a reduced APR. Managed by a certified credit counselor, a DMP organizes your payments, negotiates improved repayment terms with your creditors and distributes your monthly payment. This plan can simplify your financial commitments, helping you dodge late fees and persistent calls from debt collectors. A DMP may not be the right fit for everyone. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages to see if it aligns with your financial situation.

Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Balance transfer credit cards can consolidate your debt into a single account. These cards often feature a 0% APR on transferred balances for a limited time, usually one year. This strategy enables you to avoid interest charges and accelerate debt repayment. These cards typically charge a transfer fee of around 3% of the transferred balance.

Debt Settlement

Debt settlement allows you to negotiate with creditors for a reduced balance, interest rate, or fees. You can handle this yourself or enlist a company's services. While potentially beneficial, exercise caution. Some debt settlement companies may be scams, negatively impacting your credit. Successful settlements will stay on your credit report for up to seven years, which could affect your future credit opportunities.

Credit Counseling

A certified credit counselor can provide personalized budgeting advice and debt management plans, often beginning with a free consultation. Opt for a reputable, nonprofit agency endorsed by organizations like the Better Business Bureau, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA). Benefits include consolidated payments, possible rate reductions and a structured plan to become debt-free in three to five years. Stay vigilant for scams, especially those targeting older adults.


Creating a budget is essential for managing debt effectively. A detailed budget identifies your spending patterns and areas for potential savings, helping you avoid accumulating more debt. It also enables you to allocate funds towards debt repayment, giving you a realistic view of your financial situation for informed decision-making.

Additional Resources

The following resources can provide older adults and retirees with valuable information and tools to better manage credit cards and financial health.

  • Annual Credit Report: Request free credit reports on this government website, learn how to protect your identity and more, ensuring a solid understanding of your credit standing.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB): Utilize this free government resource to learn everything you need to know about responsible credit card usage.
  • CreditCards.com: Provides various tips on how to use credit cards in retirement, from choosing cards that align with one's lifestyle to maintaining good credit.
  • Equifax: Check your credit report and score for free with Equifax. For added security, consider their identity protection tools available to paying members.
  • Experian: Access your credit score and report for free with Experian. Monitor your credit card transactions and report any unrecognized purchases directly through the platform.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Visit the FTC government website for valuable information on credit card scams and the latest credit card news, helping you stay informed and secure.
  • Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA): This offers counseling services for credit, housing, student loans and bankruptcy, supporting debt management and financial education.
  • InCharge Debt Solutions: Provides strategies for paying off debt in retirement, such as using home equity loans to pay off high-interest credit card debt.
  • National Council on Aging (NCOA): Specializes in providing resources and advocacy for older adults, focusing on enhancing financial security through educational materials and tools.
  • National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC): This is the largest nonprofit financial counseling organization in the U.S., offering counseling towards achieving debt-free status.
  • Society for Financial Education & Professional Development (SFEPD): SFEPD offers financial education and professional development seminars and workshops, aiding in enhancing financial literacy and management.

About Nathan Paulus

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Nathan Paulus is the director of content marketing at MoneyGeek. Nathan has been creating content for nearly 10 years and is particularly engaged in personal finance, investing, and property management. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of St. Thomas Houston.