Managing Debt

Help for the “Worst Ever” Holiday Debt Hangover

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This month could see more Americans than ever waking up from their holiday spending binge with a pounding credit hangover.  The Federal Reserve announced this week that consumer credit increased at an annual rate of 10 percent in November. Revolving credit (including credit cards) increased at an annual rate of 8.5%, while non-revolving credit increased at an annual rate of 10.75%.

That doesn’t surprise Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group who says that consumers “saw such great deals on Black Friday they couldn’t resist. They bought them—not just one but two. (And) they used their credit cards because they spent more than they planned to spend.”  Another research group, the Cicero Group reported that black Friday spending totaled $54.2 billion, a 16% increase over the year before. All this frenzied spending took place in an economy where many people are still out of work or earning less than they did before the recession.

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[Related Article: Consumer Credit Jumps, Bankruptcies Plummet (At Least for Now)]

Shoppers went into the holiday season with good intentions, says Beemer. Just “24% said they would use credit cards. Everyone else was going to use cash,” he says. But his firm’s research found that during the Black Friday weekend, “31.7% used credit cards.”

While one weekend of overspending may leave you feeling lousy for a few days (or even a few months), for most people it’s either a temporary blip in the budget, or it’s part of a bigger problem. “People struggle with their finances for many reasons above and beyond ‘I went shopping for Black Friday’,” says Thomas Fox, community outreach director for Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp.

Debt can literally make you sick. Financial Finesse, an organization that provides financial education to organizations, reports that more than 200 studies conducted over the past decade have documented the link between financial stress and illness. So that headache, upset stomach, anxiety, depression, insomnia, or back pain you’re feeling may be closely related to your money worries. One study found that those who reported high stress levels due to debt had twice the risk of heart attacks!

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Holiday Debt Hangover Remedies

This is one hangover where the “hair of the dog” remedy is not advised. In other words, avoid the temptation of post-holiday sales if pre-holiday sales got you into trouble in the first place. And trying to sleep it off—avoiding the bills or debt collectors—won’t help either. To feel better, you’ll need to get up and moving in the right direction. A couple of things you can do:

Take Two Three: Look at your credit card statements to find the amount the card issuer calculates you need to pay to pay off your credit card in three years, and ask yourself whether you can pay that amount until your balance is paid off.  If you can, go ahead and set up automatic payments for that amount so it comes right out of your checking account like clockwork. Then put the card away until the balance is paid off.

Have more than one card with a balance? Try a program like SavvyMoney.com to create a comprehensive plan to get out of debt.  SavvyMoney.com founder Scott Crawford says that, “The good news is that when people are paying off their holiday debt, they are paying off more than you’d think. They are getting in better shape.”

Call the Doc In the Morning: If you look at the 3-year payment amount on your statements and realize there’s no way you can pay that much each month, then reach out to a credit counseling agency to find out if it can help you create a doable budget and payment plan. “Sometimes the do-it-yourself approach doesn’t work for everyone. It’s OK to ask for help,” says Fox.

Focus on the solution, not the problem, says Fox. “You don’t want to beat yourself up over the holiday debt you ran up. You have the debt, now what are you going to do to get out of it?”

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Image: aerodesign.pl, via Flickr.com

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