Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Time to pay down credit card debt

Even in a miserable economy with crumbling fortunes all around, most people don’t realize how close to the financial brink they’re standing themselves. Reactions to the Star-Advertiser story last week on Hawaii’s credit card debt problem — including those posted online — included comments chastising debtors for living irresponsibly.

Naturally, many do live beyond their means and end up in debt. But many others did indeed save money for a rainy day fund. They just never realized how soon they’d need to draw on that fund and how long the dry spell could last. Credit cards offer a ready escape, but at a steep price.

Hawaii’s consumers, according to recent figures, carry the nation’s highest average credit card balance. It’s a dubious distinction, for sure, but the real takeaway is that the isle cost of living is high, and that a bad economy can send the average isle resident over the edge.

Those who’ve avoided misfortune and have kept up with their bills owe sympathy to many of those who haven’t. Arrogant disdain is out of order.

And for those who face big expenses along with a loss of income, there’s advice: Be wary of scammers. Many stand ready to profit off your problems.

Wendy Burkholder works for Consumer Credit Counseling of Hawaii, a long-established nonprofit that helps people chart a course back to solvency. It’s a process that takes time and willpower to set aside enough money to pay down debt.

Her word to the wise: Avoid any debt-management "service" that seeks you out, promises you an easy escape or insists on money up front.

There is also some encouraging news: Government finally has stepped up and compelled more transparency from the credit card industry. In February, the Obama administration enacted the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act.

Among its benefits are tougher notification rules for card issuers that plan to change the terms. New account-holders get a year’s grace before interest rates can be hiked. Credit cards no longer can be marketed on college campuses, and any cardholder under 21 now must have a co-signer.

Finally, companies now must spell out on bills just how long it will take to clear a balance by making only the minimum payment. Most of the people Burkholder sees had no idea. Such consumer education is of critical importance.

The Great Recession claimed its truly careless victims long ago, she said: Now counselors are seeing those swamped by circumstance, those who never thought they would get in over their heads.

These people undeservedly feel shame. Most tragically, succumbing to that feeling and failing to seek help as a result can land them in very real and deep troubles that a little information and guidance might have helped them avoid.


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