'Charge it' -- words mean long-term debt

Holiday debt soars, credit counselors offer tips

Zack Williams pulled out the plastic in order to buy Christmas presents for his family this year.

The 25-year-old Steamboat Springs resident spent about $800 on gifts for relatives in Michigan -- equal amounts cash and credit.

"I had to use my credit card because I work on the (Steamboat Springs Ski Resort) mountain and I'm broke," he said. "I did it to have enough money to buy presents to send back home."

But Williams said the debt isn't a concern. He insisted, "I'll pay it back right away."

Whether that plan pans out or not, Williams like a majority of Americans, uses credit cards to help bridge the gap on holiday spending.

That trend may be reflected as the average credit card debt increased by more than 50 percent in a little more than a decade. According to a report by Demos, a non-profit public policy group, Americans owed an average of $4,126 on personal credit cards in 2001 -- up from the average $2,697 in 1989.

Other statistics state that an average American household owns more than 16 credit cards, including debit and retail credit cards.

"Between 1989 and 2001 credit card debt almost tripled from $238 billion to $692 billion," the Demo website said. "Credit card debt is often dismissed as the consequence of frivolous consumption. But an examination of broad structural and economic trends...suggests that many Americans are using credit cards to fill a growing gap between household earnings and the costs of essential goods and services."

Americans fall further into debt as holiday charges are tacked onto regular credit card bills. It takes an average of four months to pay off just holiday charges, said the American Bankers Association.

Though Renee Chason of POZNET Recovery Services in Craig said she sees clients after much of the debt damage has been done, holiday spending undeniably affects business.

POZNET is a debt counseling service. It's an opportunity for those in debt to consolidate debt payments.

Clients who make a concentrated effort to make large payments on their debts often fall short during the months leading up the holidays, Chason said.

"We get hit pretty hard," she said. "It can fall off from a $100 payment to a $20 payment around the holidays."

Chason said a majority of clients are adamant about getting out of debt -- a factor that may be explained simply because of POZNET's operation that works within a small town atmosphere.

"We want people to know we work as a team to help get people out of debt," she said. "We have to work like that because we see people in the grocery store, at church and around town."

But the increasing amount of debt as a result of holiday spending is as unfortunate for the consumer as it is for the Craig business, Chason said.

"We have to work double hard in the fall months to get through November and December," she added. "We see the effects of the holiday spending for months afterward."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or at ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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