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.

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