- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

If your mailbox is flooded with credit-card bills reminders that perhaps you overspent at Christmas take heart. There are strategies you can adopt to pay them down and get on a path to fewer holiday debt hangovers in the future.
It may seem obvious, but the first thing you need to do is to stop charging, said Joel Greenberg, chairman of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, based in Fairfax.
"You need to get on a cash basis so you're not accumulating more and more debt," Mr. Greenberg said.
The next step is to figure out where you are financially so that you can decide how much you can allocate to debt payments each month. That generally requires a budget that accounts for all your income and expenses.
"We suggest that people walk around with a book and, every time they spend something, they write it down," said Mr. Greenberg, who also heads Garden State Consumer Credit Counseling in Freehold, N.J. "At the end of the month, you put your spending into categories like housing, transportation, meals out. That will be a great start."
The result is that you can begin identifying areas where you can cut back on spending so you can free up more to get your credit-card bills in hand.
Some people can do it on their own, but others may find they need professional help.
"There's always a lull in December when people are pressured buying gifts and dealing with the obligations at Christmas," Mr. Greenberg said. "Come January, the bills arriving get people's attention and they seek help."
AICCA member agencies can be reached by calling 800/450-1794 or via the group's Web site at www.aicca.org.
David and Linda Schrock of Appomattox, Va., sought professional advice to deal with debt they accumulated for the weddings of three children and the expenses of building a new home.
"Certainly there were a number of Christmases over the years tied in there, too," Mr. Schrock said in an interview.
Mr. Schrock, 50, who operates a drywall finishing business, said he and his wife were handling their bills until he suffered a short-term business setback and credit-card companies began raising the interest rates on his balances, in some cases to 29 percent.
He said that advisers at the Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp. helped them negotiate better terms and a 4-year repayment schedule.
"Now when we go into a store, we hand them cash," Mr. Schrock said. "It really makes you think ahead at least two or three months, to plan what you're going to buy. With credit, you're always two to three months behind."
Chris Viale, general manager of Cambridge Credit in Agawam, Mass., said families who sign up for the agency's debt-management plans typically have balances on six to seven credit cards.
"Many are paying the minimum or $5 above the minimum each month," Mr. Viale said. "By focusing on the minimum, they're setting themselves up to spend years in debt."
The solution, he said, is to set your payments well above the minimum required.
"Say that all your minimum payments add up to $200," he said. "Go through your budgeting and figure out how you can pay double that, say $400. Stick to that amount month after month and the balances will start to go down a lot faster."
If, for example, you've got $7,000 outstanding on credit cards that charge 9 percent interest, it will take 14 years to pay off the balance with minimum payments starting at $210 a month. It will take just 19 months with regular monthly payments of $400.
Even while families are paying down their debt, they should begin building a savings account for emergencies, Mr. Viale added.
"If you don't think about building savings, you have to keep going back to credit for every little problem," he said.


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