Debt counseling agency assists with that big January hangover: the huge credit card bills.

The classic dilemma with post-holiday credit cards: should you keep using them to buy, or cut them up?

ORLANDO – It’s that time of year: the holidays are over, and people are starting to feel a hangover – but not a lingering one from too many New Year’s Eve parties over the weekend.

Instead, it’s that feeling of anxiety, even dread in some cases, when the credit card and other bills start arriving, bringing with it a reminder of just how much spending everyone did in December.

Jackie Kelvington knows this feeling well, but not necessarily from personal experience.  A lot of other people are constantly asking her advice on what to do now that the bills have come due.

 “At the beginning of the year, January and February are the shocker moments when the credit cards are coming in and people are potentially in shock mode when they open them,” Kelvington said.  “People are in the mode of ‘Gosh, how do our pay this off?’  Even with our unemployment rate being so high, people still wanted to be able to give gifts to their kids and family.  We’re in a sticky spot.

“But you’ve got to live within your means,” she added.  “That means spend what you can afford, and save, save, save.”

Kelvington runs Kelvington Consulting Group and is a media relations consultant for CredAbility, a nonprofit credit card and debt counseling agency that works with people to reduce their debt and learn better ways to manage their money.  The firm often hears from people around this time of year, when credit card debt rises following the big holiday spending season.

“CredAbility is one of the nation’s leading non-profit credit card education companies,” Kelvington said.  “What we do is all about financial wellness for individuals.  Right now, that is a huge, critical priority in our country, in our state and here in this market (Orlando). Focusing on financial wellness, we do everything from comprehensive housing counseling to avoid foreclosures to credit card debt and how to budget yourself well, to when not to use credit cards.  We often deal with clients who are contemplating bankruptcy, and last year alone we helped over a million people.”

Their goal is to assist people in understanding some common sense tips on how to avoid falling into too much debt to begin with.

“During the holidays,” Kelvington said, “it’s a time of year when people are spending money, more than any other time.  What we advise is those smart tips, like if you have to buy something, use cash first.  But if you have to use a credit card, make sure your goal is to pay it off by the end of the month. You don’t want the charges to accrue.

“Now, obviously, the holidays are over and people are more concerned about paying off the debt they built up, and a lot of it is on credit cards, so we educate consumers on how to manage their funds well,” she added.

The problem of rising debt has actually gotten better as the impact of the national recession, a nearly double-digit unemployment rate, and a still struggling housing market continue to be felt. The Federal Reserve reports that U.S. consumer credit outstanding fell in 19 of the last 21 months. With the jobs picture still murky at best, consumers have been retrenching, spending less, and saving more. It’s a big change from spending habits earlier in the decade, when the economy was stronger, the housing market was booming, and credit was easy to get.

“Up until a couple of years ago, things were kind of humming along economically,” Kelvington said.  “People had lots of disposal income, and people were less concerned about putting things on their credit card.”

Since the economy started to decline in the fall of 2008, consumer spending has tightened up considerably, and so has debt.

“People’s debt is actually going down, which is a very good sign, but people need to remember the mantra of living within their means, and we’ve got to get back to some fundamentals,” she said.  “Consumer credit card debt has dropped for 25 consecutive months, and the personal savings rate has increased to almost 5.8 percent in 2010. Those are some very good signs that consumers are tightening their money and using it to reduce their debt.”

Despite the improved savings rate, though, the picture isn’t entirely positive. The National Bankruptcy Research Center reports that the number of American consumers who filed for bankruptcy in 2010 was the highest in five years, reflecting still weak jobs and housing markets.

“It all goes back to living by those principles,” Kelvington said.

Those who are struggling with debt due to unemployment or the continued challenges facing the economy are the kind of people CredAbility helps, by teaching them to develop a household budget and stick with it, and to learn that good financial health doesn’t happen overnight.  People need to understand how to manage their finances over the long term, and not just worry about paying off one big credit card bill in January.

“We have lots of things that we do,” Kelvington said.  “The crux of our organization is one on one counseling. It’s all that we’re about. The majority of the counseling we do is by phone and online, and we do in-person as well. We’re non-profit, free and open to the public with workshops ranging from topics on first time home buying to money management.  There’s also online seminars, podcasts — all kinds of stuff that we offer. We’re affiliated with Heart of Florida United Way, and financial stability is one of the legs of what we teach.”   Heart of Florida United Way is a health and human services charitable organization in Orlando.

The local CredAbility office is at 3670 Maguire Boulevard in Orlando, right behind the Fashion Square Mall.  To learn more, call 1-800-251-2227 or log on to www.credAbility.org.

Is it art or just scratching? Living Canvas aims to set a higher standard for the tattoo industry

FOUR CORNERS – Malcolm Arnott can remember the seemingly epic struggle he faced when he first wanted to open a tattoo shop more than a year ago. The search for a good location in one of Central Florida’s numerous shopping plazas wasn’t easy – and that wasn’t because there was no office space to rent.

Malcolm Arnott has been operating Living Canvas Art Company Custom Tattoos for the past 15 months.

The problem was, Arnott found a lot of doors closed to him when he told them what kind of shop he wanted to operate.

A tattoo shop, it seemed, was almost taboo to some landlords.

“We went to eight malls and every one refused us,” Arnott said.

Cut to 15 months later. Anott and his son James have been operating Living Canvas Art Company Custom Tattoos for that period of time, and found a receptive local business environment and a healthy stream of customers in their chosen location.

Malcolm Arnott says it took a while to find a location for his tattoo shop, but he likes being in Four Corners now.

“We came to the landlord here and said ‘This is what we want to do,’ “ Malcolm Arnott said, and this time around, they get approved.  Their shop is at 9310 U.S. 192, Suite 8, in Four Corners, the section of Central Florida just south of Walt Disney World and Celebration where the counties of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Polk meet at U.S. 192 and U.S. 27. Arnott said the decision to open up in Four Corners proved to be a smart one.

“We didn’t want to be touristy, but we obviously knew tourists would be a part of our business,” he said.

With so much traffic along U.S. 192 – and so many international visitors, U.S. tourists and snowbirds flocking to Four Corners — the Arnotts don’t even bother advertising anymore. They get plenty of walk-ins without it.

“We’re now getting people coming in to say ‘We were going to drive down to Miami, but decided to check you out,’ “ Malcolm Arnott said.  “We do absolutely no advertising at all, but tourists will come in and talk. Yesterday we got seven bookings.”

“It’s different every day,” James Arnott said.  “We get clients from every single continent.  We’ve done it to people from the Philippines to China.  We get a lot of what we’re calling ‘Popping their Cherries’ – their first tattoo.  We got one women in here for her first tattoo, and she was 84.”

Their success in finding both a home and a client base, Malcolm said, demonstrates the fact that the tattoo industry is evolving, and that having a tattoo is far more universally accepted today than it was not so long ago.

“There are just under 50 million people with tattoos,” Malcolm said.   “There are 13,000 McDonald’s in the United States, and 22,000 tattoo shops. Old tattoo shops are dying out, and new ones are coming in.”

Malcolm said he understands that the tattoo industry has had an image problem.  He said Living Canvas is unique for two reasons.  First, the people who do the tattoo are all, he insists, true artists.

“The artists are actually just that – artists,” he said.  “They’re not flash jockeys. That means you’re a scratcher.”

A scratcher, he said, simply takes a drawn image and retraces it on a client. Malcolm said his artists actually do original work.

Living Canvas Art Company Custom Tattoos is on U.S. 192 in Four Corners.

“Somebody might come to the scratchers with a piece of work and they will trace it.  The scratchers are not artists, they can’t draw,” he said.  “If you put alcohol on it, it will come right off. Eighty percent of our work is custom work.”

Living Canvas is unique for another reason: all three of the tattoo artists are women, in an industry more traditionally dominated by men.

“Most people who will approach a tattoo shop, you have a rougher element hanging around, and all the tattoo artists were men,” Malcolm said.  “It’s changing a little bit, especially if the shop looks inviting, and you don’t have heavily tattooed, pierced, mohawked types hanging around.”

Living Canvas tries to create a more inviting, even family oriented, environment. They have a television set and play area for young kids who are waiting while their parents get a tattoo. Anyone interested in a tattoo has to be at least 16 years old to get one.

Another thing that’s changed, he said, is that there’s no longer a particular type of person looking for a tattoo. Entire families have come into their shop looking for one.

“Fifty percent now go for, shall we say, a reason,” Malcolm said. “In other words, a mother, father, loved one who died and was important in their life.  We had a mother and son come in. He was 16 years old and he just said ‘I want a tough-looking tattoo.’  The mother wanted three tattoos of three butterflies all named after her sons. Fifty percent of the people are having it done for special reasons.”

“It’s the artist more than anything that dictates the shop,” James added.  “If you’ve got good artists, people will come.”

To learn more about Living Canvas, call 321-284-4113 or 407-452-9902 or log on to www.livingcanvasartco.com.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

From colorful Poinsettias to plenty of mulch, Landscape Nursery Inc. does it all.

ORLANDO – Like a lot of people who love flowers, Gail Hess is always concerned when a major cold spell is coming on.

Even one night can do a lot of damage to her plants, she noted.

“It can happen in one evening,” Hess said.  “It has to be freezing.  A frost doesn’t normally kill them.  A hard freeze does.”

That’s why Hess takes extra care to be sure her plants stay warm on those rare nights when Florida temperatures drop below 32 degrees. But she has a more challenging task than a lot of others, since her garden covers 26 acres.

Gail Hess shows the few remaining poinsettias that haven't sold this holiday season at Landscape Nursery Inc., which she's operated since 1983.

“It takes a while for you to notice your plants are dead,” Hess said.  “I’d cut them back, but I’d wait until the cold is over.  I would just leave them alone for now.  There’s a lot of plant material that will come back, and people don’t realize that, that they just have to wait.”

Hess has had quite a while to learn about what plants need to grow and thrive. Since 1983, she’s operated Landscape Nursery Inc., located at 1955 S. Apopka-Vineland Road in Orlando. Right now, not surprisingly, her front office is covered with poinsettias – but with Christmas just days away, they’re selling fast.

“We’re almost out of poinsettias,” she said. “Our tables were filled with poinsettias. Now they’re mostly sold out.”

That may have been because of the huge sign under one of her tents – “Open to the Public – Poinsettias are Ready,” inviting customers to check out the row after row, table after table, of red, white and pink poinsettias.  A lot of the tables and rows, though, are bare now.

“We have sold a ton of the big ones,” Hess said.  “People like to put them on their front porch.”

Poinsettias also make a great plant for your own garden, as they turn from red to green after the holidays, Hess said.

“You can plant them in your yard and they will come back year after year,” she said.  “Just remember they need darkness at night, a spot where there is no light whatsoever in the evening.”

Her employees – 20 altogether – have stayed busy protecting their plants from the cold spell that arrived on Sunday, Dec. 12, and has brought overnight freezing temperatures to a region more used to 80 degrees in December.

“The cold creates problems for everybody,” she said.  “We have employees who come in and we have to make sure the plastic (covering the tents) is secured. And we have some heaters and fans that we use.”

Hess knows a thing or two about cold winters. She moved to Orlando in 1979 from Wisconsin, although it wasn’t the promise of tropical winters that brought her here. Instead, she was in search of a better business climate.

“The corporate taxes in Wisconsin were the highest in the union,” she said.

Hess has done well over the years operating a nursery in a state where growth has meant a lot of new residential and commercial construction work, and with it the need for landscaping projects to beautify the new properties. 

Customers are invited to come check out the rows of pink, white and red poinsettias at Landscape Nursery Inc.

“We sell all over the state, so we deliver all over the state,’ she said.  “We employ our own drivers and have a couple of mechanics, and we try to be a one stop shop for landscapers.  We grow our own plant material – a lot of others don’t. Most everything we sell is grown here. We buy in some trees and different items. We do the mulches and rocks and compost soil.”

It helps that landscaping is regulated in Orange County through so-called Arbor laws – designed to prevent a builder from abandoning a landscaping project once it’s been started.

“They have to have the landscaping done before you get your occupancy permit,” Hess said. “Years before, they could get their occupancy permit first, and some of the builders wouldn’t finish the landscaping work.  So now we have Arbor laws.”

Landscape Nursery did quite well when the residential housing construction boom was underway, but even with the collapse of the housing market, Hess said a lot of homeowners still hire landscaping firms and private landscaping contractors to create a beautiful yard for them – and those landscapers need the materials for the job.

“We don’t do the actual landscaping work, but we sell to the landscapers,” she said.

Landscape Nursery Inc. is open Mondays through Fridays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. To learn more, call 407-298-1703 or 1-800-330-1703.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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