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Hawaii leads nation

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Hawaii consumers have racked up the highest credit card debt in the nation, carrying an average of $9,296 per person in the first half of the year.

That’s 17 percent higher than the national average of $7,917, according to figures released yesterday by Credit Karma Inc., a California-based credit advocate and credit scoring website.

"The cost of just getting by here is higher," said Wendy Burkholder, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Hawaii. "We pay more for housing, we pay more for gas, we pay more for groceries — it’s not an easy place. Any hiccup on the income can set people up to experience trouble — and there’s plenty of hiccups going on right now."

With many Hawaii consumers losing their jobs or having their pay cut, the average credit card holder took on an additional $2,263 in debt in the past year.

Not only are Hawaii residents leading the nation in credit card debt, but they are also No. 2 in mortgage debt.

The six-month average mortgage debt per person in the islands was $314,721, significantly higher than the national average of $177,934.

Hawaii fared better on two remaining areas measured by Credit Karma: auto loans and student loans.

Average auto loan debt here totaled $15,335, just slightly ahead of the national average of $14,922. Student loan debt amounted to $25,658, a bit less than the national average of $27,482, according to Credit Karma, which collected the data from a sample of 281,000 consumers nationwide, including 1,600 in Hawaii.

Hawaii residents often end up carrying a mountain of credit card debt because wages here don’t keep up with the state’s high costs of living, according to Honolulu bankruptcy lawyer Blake Goodman.

"They close the earnings and spending gap by living off credit," Goodman said. "That can only last for so long."

Dion Ruidas of Wailuku, Maui, nearly lost it all — his home, car and other assets — when his concrete accessories business was impacted as construction activity cooled at the end of 2007. By 2008, he had racked up $40,000 in credit card debt and is in the process of filing for bankruptcy.

"Over time it just caught up with me," he said. "It was just totally unmanageable. I wasn’t making payments. Now because of my credit being so bad, I’ve got to pay up front if a contractor makes an order. My suppliers that I get my products from, they closed my accounts. It was very stressful to the point where I cut back everything from cable to eating out."

Besides the financial toll debt takes on a family, there’s an equally significant emotional toll, said Waimanalo resident Chris Opiopio, 56, a former ticket agent who was laid off twice — first from Aloha Airlines when it shut down in March 2008 and again from Mokulele Airlines when it consolidated operations with Mesa Air Group’s interisland carrier go! in October 2009.

Opiopio, also a full-time caregiver for her disabled husband, resisted getting credit counseling until January when she found herself $25,000 in the hole.

"It was I guess a pride kind of thing, where it’s shame — I didn’t want to feel stupid," said Opiopio, who worked for Aloha Airlines for 30 years. "I started using credit cards to buy groceries and putting in gas. I’m sure a lot of us had to max out credit cards with household expenses."

The typical client at Consumer Credit Counseling Service owes roughly $24,000, the bulk of which comes from credit card debt, Burkholder said. That’s compared with the $8,000 average debt load of a client 10 years ago, she said.

More consumers are tapping into credit cards to subsidize their cash flow after being laid off and exhausting their savings, Burkholder said.

"Many of them are just shellshocked. They hadn’t done anything wrong — they hadn’t gotten a crazy home loan or bitten off more than they can chew. It’s just one event after another that derailed them and they found themselves in a place they never expected to be."

 

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