As those holiday credit-card bills roll in this month, many people have a deep sense of discomfort. But credit experts say that instead of feeling overwhelmed by their bloated...
NEW YORK — As those holiday credit-card bills roll in this month, many people have a deep sense of discomfort.
But credit experts say that instead of feeling overwhelmed by their bloated balances, consumers should use the occasion to get a handle once and for all on their credit-card debt.
That could be a bit harder this year because holiday spending was so strong, warned David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, based in Richmond, Va.
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“There was a huge amount of spending this Christmas,” Jones noted. “That’s good for retailers, but maybe not so good for consumers because there can be serious issues as people get themselves back together financially.”
He said two early warning signs of trouble are when consumers can’t afford the minimum monthly payments on all their cards or fear they can pay only the minimum for months to come.
As a result, he said, many consumers “worry there’s no way out.”
But Jones and other credit experts say there are steps consumers can take themselves or with help from professional credit counselors to deal with their debts.
Susan Shain, of Bethpage, N.Y., sought help from the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when she was overwhelmed by credit-card debt. She said a divorce several years ago set her back financially while the day-to-day costs of raising two daughters kept rising.
“I was using my credit cards a lot,” Shain said. “Part of it was covering necessities. But mostly it was to make sure the kids were OK, because I just didn’t want the situation to affect my daughters.”
She estimates that some $9,000 of her debt was to cover gifts and other holiday spending over the years.
Shain now works two jobs, full time as a surgical technician and part time at a gourmet food store, with part of her income going to pay down her debt.
Shain admits she still sometimes overspends at holidays and that “I tend to get stressed” when the bills arrive in January. But now she handles the situation by asking for extra shifts, “and I pay the balances off as fast as I can.”
Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit, said many people have so many credit cards they don’t know how much they owe overall. He offers a step-by-step approach to help consumers work on the problem:
First, list all your bills on a single sheet of paper in three columns: who you owe, how much and the minimum monthly payment.
Then look at your earnings and spending.
“With earnings, look at every aspect,” Dvorkin said. “Can you adjust your [tax] withholding to get a little more in your paycheck each month? Do you need to find a part-time job to supplement your income?”
On the spending side, “make sure every penny is going to the right places,” Dvorkin said. He noted that someone with a $3-a-day latte habit can save several hundred dollars a year by simply changing to regular coffee or that consumers can cut food bills by shopping at discount stores rather than more expensive neighborhood groceries.
“Most people can probably bring down their expenses by 10 percent to 15 percent and not even notice,” he said.
The final step is to take that extra money and apply it to credit-card balances.
Dvorkin, who is the author of the soon-to-be-published “Credit Hell: How to Dig Out of Debt,” suggests consumers first go after the balance on the card charging the highest interest rate.
“You should be paying at least three times the minimum on that one,” he said.
He also said it’s important for consumers to switch to cash and debit cards until their debt is under control.
“If you’re paying down debt and, at the same time, charging more, you’re like a hamster on an exercise wheel running around in a circle,” Dvorkin said.
Both Dvorkin and Jones said consumers who feel they need help should consult credit counselors, who can help them work out budget plans or get them into debt consolidation programs.
Dvorkin’s site is www.consolidatedcredit.org.Two associations of nonprofit agencies maintain Web sites: The National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org and Jones’ Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies at www.aiccca.org.