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.

Freeline Media asks our readers to name the most important Citizens of 2011

As this weekend brings us into the New Year, we can look back at 2010 for what it was in Central Florida: tumultuous, unpredictable, continuously challenging for so many, but a year that still brought more hopeful signs than a lot of us had any reason to expect when the year began.

Freeline Media asks its readers: are we on the right road, and if so, who are the major movers and shakers steering us in that direction?

Politically, 2010 was a stunning year for the Florida Republican Party, which won all four of the state’s constitutional offices, held on to a crucial U.S. Senate seat, and picked up four congressional seats — stunning victories that mirrored the GOP’s pickup of 63 congressional seats nationwide and six U.S. Senate races. And yet …

… polls continue to show that Republicans are held in low esteem by voters, leading many analysts to conclude that the victories had more to do with a rejection of the Democratic Party’s governing in the past two years than a ringing endorsement of the GOP.  Likewise, the GOP winners appeared to be helped by the spirit and enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement and its call for a return to limited government principles. Is the GOP truly ready to make tough choices on spending priorities … or risk alienating the very voters who helped elect them?

Central Florida’s housing market remained weak, with prices still falling and the foreclosure rate remaining among the highest in the nation. And yet …

There were signs that banks were starting to move more quickly on closings for “short sale” transactions, helping to clear some of the high inventory in the region — a hopeful sign for sellers who have waited in frustration for the housing market to pick up steam.

The region’s unemployment rate remained stubbornly high — in double digits, above the national average. And yet …

Orlando showed signs of creating more new jobs than other regions of the state, an indication that this city may move out of the economic slump faster than Tampa, Miami and other major metro areas.

Looking back at 2010, Freeline Media Orlando asks its readers: who were the most powerful and influential citizens in Central Florida last year?

Who had the most important impact on this region’s political scene, on the real estate market, on the business community, on economic development, and on the cultural scene?

And will these same people remain the most influential players in 2011, with high expectations for their impact on jobs, housing, and growth in 2011?

And are there people who lost in 2010 — politically, or economically, or through a long-awaited but ultimately failed project — who may be poised for a major comeback this year?

 Email us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com with your nominations for the top players of 2010, and who could play a crucial role in the region’s future throughout this year.

Freeline Media Orlando will then place the ten nominations in an Internet poll to determine the top ten rankings in order, and we’ll announce the winning rankings on Jan. 17 of the top ten “Most Powerful Citizens of Central Florida,” along with followup articles on who they are, why they were chosen, and why we expect them to be have a major impact this year.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Driving while intoxicated is dangerous, but how about driving while buzzed?

TAVARES – Everybody knows highway patrols will be out in force tonight to crack down on motorists who take the risk and decide to operate under the influence. That’s always an increased risk on a holiday night when people are out drinking and partying to welcome in the new year.

What some driverse may not realize is that if they hit a club, have one beer, and decide to stop drinking and then drive home … they still might be putting themselves, and other people on the highways, at risk.

Can even one drink make the highway look blurry to the driver? Law enforcement says yes, that drinking while buzzed is deadly, too.

“Even if you’re just feeling buzzed, don’t operate a motor vehicle,” said Gabriel White, a deputy with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.  “You could have one alcoholic beverage and be impaired.”

For the past two weeks, the Lake County Community Traffic Safety Team and the sheriff’s office have been trying to raise public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving through a media campaign called “Drunk Driving – Over the Limit. Under Arrest.”  The campaign officially ends tomorrow.

Part of the campaign is a new “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” slogan, designed to caution motorists that even one or two drinks can be too many.

A safer option, said Noble Olasimbo, chairman of the Community Traffic Safety Team, would be to stay home or not consume any alcohol if you expect to be on the roads.

“After hearing about the dangers of drinking and driving time after time, most people have gotten the message,” Olasimbo said.  “If they’re planning on drinking, they should always plan a safe way home.”

He also urged parents to “take note that young males were at particularly high risk, with nearly one-quarter admitting to riding with someone who should not have been behind the wheel in the past year.”

This isn’t just a local effort.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Ad Council has started a television and Facebook blitz titled “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving,” with the tagline, “Getting behind the wheel after even just one too many drinks can lead to disaster.”

A year ago in December 2009, 753 people nationwide were killed in crashes that involved a driver or motorcycle rider with a high blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, the Traffic Safety Team notes.

White agreed that people think a motorist needs to be intoxicated before alcohol begins to impair their judgment behind the wheel.

“You don’t have to have a lot to drink,” he said.  “You can be impaired off just one.  It all depends on the person and their height and weight.”

For some people, just one drink at the bar can be one too many.

The Traffic Safety Team is urging people to plan on a safe way of getting home before any of the festivities begin by finding a designated sober driver, calling a taxi, or using public transportation.

Anyone who hasn’t been drinking, and who is driving and spots a drunk driver on the road should call local law enforcement immediately.

 “We know that the holiday season can be one of the deadliest and most dangerous times on America’s roadways due to an increase in drunk driving,” said Sgt. Thomas McKane of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and co-chairman of the Community Traffic Safety Team.

“Don’t let your 2010 end in an arrest or worse – death,” he added. “Remember, whether you’ve had way too many or just one too many, it’s not worth the risk.”

For more information on this campaign, log on to www.stopimpaireddriving.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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