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Holiday debt doesn't have to happen

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To save money on holiday gifts, Crystal Kudlak's mother liked to bake cookies and give them away in tin cans. Her grandmother wove love into the presents she sewed.

Homemade gifts are a cheaper option during the holidays, Kudlak said.

They are also one less opportunity for consumers to swipe their credit card, she said.

Kudlak -- a division manager at Apprisen, a national financial counseling and debt management group that has an office in Cross Lanes -- said she sees the most clients with credit card concerns in January and February.

"When you're using plastic, you don't realize you're spending that much money," Kudlak said.

Americans' holiday spending is expected to increase more than 4 percent, to $586.1 billion, in November and December, according to the National Retail Federation.

In the U.S., a projected 160 million people -- more than half of the country -- own more than one billion credit cards, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The nation's outstanding credit card debt by the end of this year is expected to reach $870 billion, according to the Census.

When shoppers swipe their credit card, they typically don't think about the card's interest rate, which Kudlak said can be a costly mistake.

If someone charges $2,000 on a credit card that has an 18 percent interest rate, for example, it would take them 30 years to pay off a bill that ultimately cost nearly $5,000, she said.

"You camp out to save $100, you charge it, and if you don't pay off that credit card the next month, then your savings are eaten away," Kudlak said. "People are kind of amazed at that [statistic]. Some people don't want to ever use credit again."

Most people who use credit cards overspend, said Ric Edelman, a nationally acclaimed financial advisor.

Overspending outweighs all the positives of using a credit card during the holidays, said Edelman, also a New York Times best-selling author of seven books on personal finance.

"Under no circumstances should you go into debt to buy presents. It means you should bake cookies or offer to babysit instead," Edelman said. "If they love you, they will understand and if they don't love you, they don't deserve your presents."

But presents aren't the only items that holiday shoppers are charging.

The holidays also entail decorations, a tree, hosted parties, themed clothing, travel, charity, entertainment and even more groceries. All those are items that many people will charge on their credit card, Edelman said.

"It can get out of hand pretty fast," he said.

Edelman and Kudlak have simple advice for consumers: don't spend more than you can afford to pay.

"Before you swipe your card, ask, 'Can I afford this purchase? If I can't afford this purchase am I willing to pay the cost of using this credit card?' It's making that determination," Kudlak said. "You don't want to double or triple what you spend if you're unable to pay [the credit card] off."

Edelman has a four-step process for holiday shopping:

1. Make a list. "Like Santa says. But don't write down what you're going to buy people, write down how much you're going to spend per person," Edelman advises.

2. Add up your list. If it's more than you can afford to spend, remove people from the list or reduce the amount-per-person that you're willing to spend.

3. Ensure the total amount includes all costs associated with the gift, including wrapping, shipping, a holiday card, and taxes.

4. Go to the bank and withdraw the total amount. Having the cash on-hand is crucial to not overspending.

Edelman -- and many financial advisors -- recommends leaving the credit card at home while holiday shopping.

If that isn't an option, however, there are positives to using a credit card as long as the shopper has discipline, he said.

"It's safer. You don't have to carry cash that you may lose or have stolen. With many cards, you have buyer's protection so if the product is damaged or destroyed, the card will buy you a new replacement product," Edelman said. "Many cards offer rebates, discounts, and points that help you buy things for less. It's also a great record so you can track where your money went."

Using credit cards responsibly can also help boost credit scores, Kudlak said.

Layaway is another option for people buying big-ticket items, such as TVs and computers, he said.

Other ways to avoid holiday debt:

* Save up. Put money aside during the months leading up to the holidays.

* Make a budget plan and stick to it.

* Reduce other expenses if necessary. Cancel the cable or eat out less, Edelman said.

* Know your credit card's limit and interest rate.

* Pay your credit card bill on time.

* Use coupons.

* Don't shop for yourself.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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