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Tuesday, October 21, 2014         

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Stay calm, plan as holiday debt comes due

By Alex Velga

Associated Press

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A wallet-emptying shopping binge and New Year’s debt hangover are mainstays for many consumers.

Now that the holiday bills have arrived, many face the daunting task of whittling down the mountain of often high-interest credit card debt before it gets out of control.

That task is made more difficult this year because most paychecks have been reduced because Congress and the White House allowed a two-year reduction in Social Security payroll taxes to lapse at the end of December.

Although many cardholders have kept their credit card debt relatively low since 2010, their average debt is expected to grow by roughly 8 percent to $5,446 by the end of this year. That’s the highest level in four years, according to credit reporting firm TransUnion.

That suggests some consumers could end up carrying at least a portion of their 2012 holiday debt, and paying interest on it, well into 2013.

Here are six tips on how to detox your finances this year.

TALLY WHAT YOU OWE

First on the debt to-do list is to take stock of the damage. That means reviewing credit card bills, bank statements and other accounts to determine how much you owe and how that translates into monthly payments.

Experts also recommend getting a copy of your credit report if you haven’t done so in more than a year.

Consumers are entitled to get a credit report from the three nationwide credit reporting companies free of charge every 12 months. Copies can be obtained at AnnualCreditReport.com. A credit report can help you understand how your debt, and your payment history, will be perceived by potential lenders.

DRAW UP A PAYMENT PLAN

Paying down credit card debt requires discipline.

One oft-advised strategy for borrowers carrying balances on two or more credit cards is to rank the cards by their interest rates and then make the biggest monthly payment on the card with the highest interest rate. For the rest, only make the minimum monthly payment. The process is repeated once the card with the highest rate is paid off.

This approach reduces the portion of payments going toward interest.

CONSIDER A BALANCE TRANSFER

A survey by Consumers Union found that half of the respondents are racking up interest charges by carrying a balance.

For those who don’t have a pile of cash that they can draw upon to pay down their debt, the next best option is to lower the interest charges.

You can ask your credit card issuer to do you the favor, but don’t count on it. A more realistic option is to consolidate your card balances into another card with a lower interest rate.

Many card issuers extend balance transfer offers, with some providing an introductory period of a year or more to pay off the transferred balances at no interest. However, that’s not set in stone. Banks also will typically charge a fee of 3 percent to 4 percent on the amount transferred.

MAKE A BUDGET, FOLLOW IT

Make a budget of your fixed household expenses, such as your mortgage or rent, utilities, car loan, insurance and so on. Carve out a realistic amount of money for more variable costs, such as gas, groceries and entertainment. Once you figure out a monthly plan that allows you to pay down your card debt, even if it means scrimping here and there, stick with it. The key to doing that is to remain on top of expenses.

USE CREDIT, DON’T ABUSE IT

The best way to get back on the right financial track is to get in the habit of paying off any charges on cards right away. It helps to reframe one’s understanding of what credit is.

GET HELP

Counseling agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offer free credit counseling, advice on making a personal budget and dealing with creditors. They can be found on www.hud.gov.






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