Karla Austin locks away her credit cards during the holidays, fearful the season's hustle and bustle will force her to spend, spend, spend.

She knows the trouble plastic can cause when a person says "Merry Christmas" less often than those other two words - CHARGE IT!And Austin is not alone. Every December, shop-til-you-drop consumers charge billions of dollars to spread holiday cheer. In fact, Visa USA Inc. estimates it will process about 1,200 transactions every second at the peak of the holiday season.

But few talk about what happens when the bills start rolling in. The aftermath often is a stack of leftover charge receipts and a crushing financial hangover.

To overcome those monetary migraines, many recovering spendthrifts turn to credit counseling for help. The businesses and their clients attest it's a better option than bankruptcy.

"We spend thousands and thousands of dollars learning how to make money, but we just don't teach ourselves how to spend it," said Austin. "It controls us and our lifestyles."

Credit counselors help get people out of debt by educating them about money management, en-couraging them to stick to a budget and acting as a go-between with creditors.

Because many are associated with nonprofit organizations that receive funding from banks, department stores or other creditors, the centers are able to offer counseling and other services for free or a minimal charge.

"Most people who come to us are in financial crisis," said Troy Menlove, president of Financial Fitness Centers. "They don't know how to make ends meet."

Menlove said his center, which charges between $100 and $300 for at least three months of instruction, has helped most clients retire their debt in three years or less.

Austin sought credit counseling after she realized she was $16,000 in the red. The debt began piling up after her husband was released from the Army.

When they returned from Germany, her husband took a $1,300 pay cut as a warehouse manager - the only job he could find. Then the military told him it had miscalculated his paychecks and that he owed $7,000 - immediately.

Worse, Austin had major complications giving birth. The medical bills soared, and the couple eventually moved in with her parents for six months to save money. But nothing helped.

"Even though the creditors are calling you, even though you know your savings is gone, even though you know your bills add up to twice as much as you're taking home - you still rob Peter to pay Paul," Austin said.

"It's an absolute feeling of drowning. There is no way to get out. There is no hope."

She and her husband found a way to manage, though, after going over their budget with credit counselors. Now she is more careful with her spending, especially during the holidays.

But Jean Lown, a Home Economics and Consumer Education Department professor at Utah State University, said it's hard to determine the effectiveness of credit counseling.

"One of the extreme difficulties in doing follow-up is that often people with financial problems are very transient," she said. "I don't know if there's much good research."

Another problem is that the services can vary greatly, she said.

John Taylor, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Utah, said consumers should shop around for an organization that works for them. The national nonprofit group his center belongs to helped 5,800 households last year and returned $1 billion to creditors.

"The best thing we could do is work ourselves out of business," said Taylor, whose organization provides free counseling services.

But he said that will likely never happen given the easy availability of credit. Indeed, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for both national credit companies and local stores offering their own cards.

This year, U.S. merchants rang up more than $11 billion in retail sales on Visa cards from the day after Thanksgiving through Dec. 10. Visa spokeswoman Susan Murdy said that's 23 percent higher than the $9 billion recorded for the same time last year.

Utahns spent more than $90 million during those weeks this year and ranked 28th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the amount consumers charged on Visa cards.

"Obviously, during our Christmas season there's an influx of people using credit cards, " said Earl Russell, corporate credit manager for ZCMI, which offers its own credit card.

Russell estimates the region's 18 ZCMI stores see a 20 percent increase in credit card statements around the winter holidays.

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After Christmas, Menlove and Taylor experience at least 20 percent more business in January, February and March. There also are more bankruptcy cases.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court clerk Bill Stillgedauer said that for the past two years, there have been more Utah filings in March than any other month.

At one point, Austin contemplated bankruptcy but now believes those days are behind her.

"We hadn't been able to use our credit cards because they scared us to death," Austin said. "But the last two years we have done Christmas and they have been good. . . . We just learned to use lay-a-way and planned a budget."

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