Feeling the pinch

Credit counseling offered for holiday overspenders

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

The party is over. It's time to take down the tinsel and toss the champagne corks.

And it's time to face the financial hangover: paying those holiday bills.

If December's cheer produces January's fear, and managing your money better is one of your New Year's resolutions, help is at hand. The Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Alaska wants to hear from you.

"During the holidays people do tend to over spend," said Rick Thomas, director of counseling at the service's main office in Anchorage.

The service is affiliated with the National Foundation for Consumer Credit (NFCC), a national nonprofit network of 1,450 centers designed to help people dealing with stressful financial situations.

According to the foundation's Web site, the average family planned to spend about $1,700 on the holiday season just past.

In 1999, American families spent about $1,100 on gifts alone, about 27 percent more than planned. Shoppers also underestimated the four months it typically takes to pay off holiday debt, according to a report from the American Bankers Association.

During January and February, strapped consumers sometimes let other bills slide as they try to catch up on holiday costs, Thomas said.

"It tends to snowball if they don't budget," he said.

Budgeting is key to healthy family finances, he said.

People tend to equate budgeting with doing without things they want. However, the counselors think of it as becoming more knowledgeable: knowing where your money goes and planning ahead where you will need it, Thomas said.

Some people have trouble making ends meet when they must cover things such as trips to the doctor, car repairs or new clothes when junior heads back to school. But such expenditures are not emergencies. They are predictable and families need to plan for them, he said.

Thomas has counseled people who discovered they were spending $150 per month on lattes.

"We always tell people it's the little things we do that add up," he said.

The Anchorage office is sponsoring a series of two financial health workshops this month. The first, "Putting Power in Your Paycheck" will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Jan. 18. It helps people master personal finances through setting goals, tracking expenses and creating a spending plan.

The second, "Mission Possible" will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Jan. 23. It helps people become successful consumers through planning, wariness and good shopping habits.

The workshops are free and can be attended via home phone, but people need to sign up in advance.

The counseling service has other services as well, some of which involve fees.

It provides other workshops, reviews of credit reports and a debt management program, which helps insolvent consumers pay off debts.

The counseling service used to have an office on the Kenai Peninsula but closed it two years ago. It found that many people would rather handle matters by phone or in Anchorage because they preferred the greater anonymity, Thomas said.

However, peninsula residents still can access the services via toll-free phone calls or the Internet. The Anchorage office number is (907) 279-6501 or (800) 478-6501. For emergencies outside of business hours, the national foundation maintains a 24-hour crisis hot line at (800) 388-2227. For online services, go to www. nfcc.org.

All appointments and correspondence are confidential.

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