Americans rack up millions in credit card debt over holidays

By CHRISTINA M. CURRIE
Daily Press writer
Though the final count is still underway, it looks like a last-minute surge saved the otherwise dismal 2001 holiday shopping season.
American consumers charged about $122.1 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas to their credit cards, a slight increase over the projected $121.4 billion in credit card volume.
"We spent more than we anticipated," said Milburn Markle, Craig resident.
While that is good news for retailers, it's not such good news for shoppers who now face paying of those credit card balances.
"It's easy to splurge on meals out and gifts during the final weeks of the year. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to pay for all those holiday purchases," said Ken Scott, spokesman for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Greater Denver.
CCCS recommends that those swimming in credit card debt make payment plans now, and not wait for the mountain of debt to grow.
"There have been a few times where we have gotten into debt and had to climb out," Craig resident Connie Trujillo said.
To avoid the pitfall of "charge now, pay later" Trujillo has gone to a cash-only system for holiday shopping.
"We usually try to save up for the holidays and try not to charge anything," she said. "You tend to go overboard if you use a credit card."
CCCS estimates that the typical household spent $1,150 on credit cards between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It's kind of a shock when you open up your first credit card statement after Christmas," Craig resident Andrea Sparks said. "As much as I try to keep track, we always seem to spend more than we thought."
Sparks pays more than the minimum required when she can, but said it still takes most of the following year to pay for the holiday splurge.
"If you are among the many whose holiday generosity increased their credit card balances, you need to start a repayment now," said Darrin Sandoval, CCCS spokesman.
According to Cardweb.com, a credit card information network, charge-offs or losses are now at a 10 year high, and personal bankruptcies hit an all-time high during 2001. Economists predict 2002 will be rough year for credit card companies as delinquency, charge-offs and bankruptcies are headed higher in the wake of rising unemployment.
But card companies didn't wrangle money out of all Craig residents. A few report spending only cash this holiday season.
"We used mostly cash," said Doris Rutherford. "I'm one to budget myself. I limit myself to so much per person and try to stay within that budget. In the past I might have overspent, but not now."
According to the American Bankers Association, 32 percent of Americans made no holiday budget.
Sharron McClellen is another Craig resident who faced the holiday season with only cash in hand.
"I'm relieved," she said. "It's all paid for now."
Based on checkwriting, retail sales increased 2.1 percent over the 2000 holiday season. The top five shopping days, in descending order, were Saturday, Dec. 22; the day after Thanksgiving; Saturday, Dec. 15; Friday, Dec. 21; and Thursday, Dec. 20. According to the International Mass Retail Association, most Americans had overspent their holiday budgets by Dec. 19.

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