In retirement, taking it easy is becoming a lot harder to do.

Take, for example, the most disconcerting finding of Allianz Life Insurance Company’s recently published Generations Apart Study. Nearly half of the 2,000 baby boomers (ages 49 to 67) and Generation Xers (ages 35 to 48) who were surveyed now regard credit cards as an acceptable way to plug a cash-flow hole.

When did the three-legged stool of retirement planning — Social Security + retirement-specific savings (pension, 401(k) and IRAs) + personal savings — become so wobbly?

Well, the economic crash certainly didn’t help. Between investment losses and protracted unemployment, both generations gave up a lot of economic ground. Increasing longevity is also a factor. But for fixed-income earners, at least (boomers, mostly), the problem is exacerbated by interest rates that have been exceptionally low for an extraordinarily long period of time.

Consider the case of retired spouses who collectively receive $2,500 per month in Social Security benefits (the 2011 per person average was $1,181), plus a combined $2,000 per month in pension and/or 401(k) benefits (also based upon per person average account balances with 2% annual distribution) for a total of $4,500 in fixed-income earnings per month, pretax.

Also suppose the couple managed to sock away $500,000 in personal savings over the years. Before the crash, interest on an account of that magnitude could reasonably be counted on to generate an additional $2,000 per month toward the couple’s post-retirement income, which would have raised the total to a not-too-shabby $78,000 per year.

Today, however, that same savings account likely generates less than half of that amount, leaving the couple $10,000 to $15,000 short. Meantime, their cost of living hasn’t declined. If anything, rent, food and utility expenses are higher today than they were seven or eight years ago.

Therein lies the problem.

Our fictitious couple’s three sources of post-retirement income are fixed. If the expense side of their budget is as limited, the only way to balance the equation will be with borrowed money—hence the increasing amounts of mortgage and nonmortgage indebtedness the Allianz study cites.

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Mitchell D. Weiss