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Older Americans rely on credit cards as their financial safety net and pay down less of their debt than younger consumers, a new study shows.

Last year, the low- and middle-income 50-plus population had an average credit card balance of $8,278, compared with the younger generation's balance of $6,258, according to research conducted by Demos, a liberal public policy organization on behalf of AARP.

The older generation managed to reduce their balances by 16% from 2008 to 2012. But the under-50 age group surpassed that, paying off 37% of their credit card debt in the same period.

"Older Americans living on a reduced income and feeling strapped for money will likely turn to credit cards as a way to make ends meet," says Gail Cunningham,vice president of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). "Credit should be used as a convenience, not as an additional paycheck."

As credit card debt piled up, about half of older Americans were called by debt collectors, the study says. Some of them have tried to renegotiate what they owe, and a growing number are seeking help from credit-counseling services. In 2011, 33% of Americans who went to a credit counselor were 55 and older, which was 7% higher than in 2009, according to the NFCC.

Credit card debt is often associated with irresponsible young consumers. But older Americans primarily use credit cards to pay for essential items and to cope with unexpected emergencies, according to the Demos study. Among its findings:

• Half of Americans 50-plus carry medical expenses on their credit cards, primarily for prescription medication and dental costs.

• Nearly half use credit cards to pay for car repairs, and 38% use them for home repairs.

• Credit cards are used for basic living expenses, such as mortgage payments, groceries and utilities, by 34% of older Americans.

• Nearly 25% say that a job loss contributes to their credit card debt.

"The Great Recession and the ongoing financial crisis have only tightened the squeeze on middle-class families and have cast a shadow on the future retirement prospects of today's workers," said Barry Rand, AARP CEO.

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