NEW YORK (AP) -- As the bills for Christmas spending come rolling in, a lot of Americans start feeling stressed about their debts.
So while December was a month of frenzied buying, January and February are when the phones ring at the nation's credit counseling agencies.
''We're seeing a 30 percent increase over last year,'' said Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc., a nonprofit agency in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ''There's a lot of discomfort out there.''
The reason calls are up, he believes, is the weak economy has made Americans more concerned about how they're going to manage their heavy debt loads.
''For 10 years, we had robust economic growth and strong employment,'' Dvorkin said. ''Now the market is bad, the economy is terrible and there are job losses, so people are taking a step back and thinking about what's really going on.''
For some, the turning point is when their credit cards are maxed out and they can afford only minimum payments. Or they see a steady stream of late payment or missed payment penalties. Or they have to use one card to pay off another.
For Judith Pina, 29, of San Antonio, it was a growing sense of unease.
She and her husband, Albert, found their bills piling up after she quit work to stay home with their two children.
''When we first got married, we had perfect credit, we wouldn't dream of being late or missing a payment,'' Pina said. ''Then we got behind on our credit cards. Fees were being added, and we worried we couldn't catch up.''
She said their motivation to deal with the problem was close by: ''We looked at our kids and said, 'We don't want to do this anymore. We want to be responsible for them.'''
Pina said Consolidated Credit helped them put together a plan to pay off their $8,000 in debt over the next three to four years. They make a set monthly payment ''and put any extra money, like our tax refund,'' toward the balance.
Now they pay cash for most purchases and hold off on buying bigger items until they have the savings in hand, she said.
''We're not going to get into this credit card bind again,'' she said.
Ann Hartmann, a financial planner from Toledo, Ohio, who is president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, says consumers must make a real commitment if they want to end the debt cycle.
''If you're thinking, 'I'm just going to keep paying the minimum,' you'll still be in debt next Christmas,'' she said.
-- Keep only one or two credit cards, and cut up the rest to remove the temptation to charge more.
-- Make a list of your debts, and put them in order from the one that charges the highest interest rate to the one with the lowest rate. Pay the minimum on everything each month, but put as much extra money as you can on the highest-rate debt to pay it off. Then go to the next.
''If you have eight to pay off, it can take forever to feel like you're making progress,'' Hartmann said. ''You'll feel that way when it's down to seven, then six, then five.''
-- Don't think you can solve the problem by moving debt from one place to another.
''A lower interest card or home equity loan may make sense, but you have to commit to pay it -- and not accumulate more debt,'' she said.
Still, finding a lower rate can reduce your costs. The monthly payment to eliminate a $3,000 debt in a year would be $268 with a 7 percent home equity loan. To clear that amount on a credit card that charges 18 percent, you'd have to pay $295 a month. And on card with a 24 percent rate, the monthly cost would be $310.
Dvorkin of Consolidated Credit believes some consumers need to stop using credit cards altogether and use cash.
He also recommends families take a close look at ways to reduce expenses so there's more money available to pay down debt. ''People have a lot of fat in their budgets,'' he said.
And he suggests Americans review their spending.
''We have $700 billion in credit card debt in this country,'' he said. ''That's a lot of last Christmases.''
On the Net:
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