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Don't get scrooged by holiday debt

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Photo illustration by TOM REED/The Times

When it comes time for Christmas shopping, most people haul out their credit cards, even though they already may be faced with too much debt. Personal finance experts advise careful planning of holiday spending.

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Everywhere you look you see reminders that this is the gift-giving season. But when credit card bills come in January, experts say many will find an ugly follow up to their holly, jolly holidays.

A recent Gallup poll shows that the average American expects to spend $909 on holiday gifts, much of which will be paid for by credit cards.

"Of those who use credit cards and have credit card debt, 25 percent don't pay off their Christmas credit card debt until October of the following year," said Howard Dayton, co-founder of Gainesville-based Crown Financial Ministries.

Dayton, who is host of a daily radio show, "Money Matters," said he hears from people who are struggling to get out of debt.

"We had a young couple call in that has two kids and $104,000 in debt, in addition to their home mortgage," Dayton said, adding that $45,000 was credit card debt. "It's just staggering."

Eric Tyson, author of a new book, "Let's Get Real About Money! Profit from the Habits of the Best Personal Finance Managers," said the numbers for the average American are not good.

"Our national personal savings rate is negative 1 percent," Tyson said. "Many people already owe money going into the holiday season so the annual shopping spree just adds insult to injury."

Like Dayton, Tyson said those who cannot afford it need to change their holiday habits.

"I don't want to see people have the huge financial hangover in January with bills they can't pay off," Tyson said.

Our motivation for giving varies from love to compensation.

"We want to express to our loved ones how much we love and care about them," Tyson said. "Sometimes we're trying to overcome not spending enough time with someone."

For those who are enticed by bargains and discounts, the worth of the sale price is based on your ability to pay. "It's no bargain if you're going to have to pay double-digit interest rates," he said. "People think, ‘Oh, it's such a good deal, this flat screen TV was $200 less than it was a year ago.' Again, can you afford it or can't you?"

Both experts say planning your spending is the answer.

"How many people are you going to buy presents for and how much are you going to spend? It requires some planning and forethought to keep from going overboard," Tyson said.

"It's so much better to get ahead of the curve by having a Christmas budget and saving on a consistent basis for Christmas. It may mean for two or three Christmases being very creative and making gifts or buying less expensive ones," said Dayton, whose radio show is heard daily on 1,100 stations.

The debt crunch begins early, Dayton said, pointing out that many young people are already saddled with debt before they enter the world of work.

"The average senior graduates from undergrad school with $19,000 of school debt, an average of $3,000 credit card debt, plus whatever they owe for their wheels," he said. "It's a huge problem, we talk to people everyday who are just dying because of their debt."



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