In the next few weeks, after the gifts have been opened, the tree taken down and party decorations packed away, some less cheery reminders of Christmas will linger as holiday bills arrive.

Free spenders may find themselves unable to handle their mounting debts. But financial experts warn falling behind with payments can be expensive and jeopardize future borrowing plans."If it's a rare occurrence, it probably won't be a problem, but if a pattern develops, it's likely to be reflected (negatively) on your credit report," said Jonathan Pond, a Boston-based financial consultant.

Pond and other financial advisers recommend people with financial hangovers first concentrate on getting household expenses paid in a timely manner, especially the mortgage or rent, before attempting to wipe out credit card balances. These consumers must also avoid taking on new debt.

"If you're playing this game, it's also probably better to be delinquent on those loans that don't report to the credit bureaus," Pond said. Some utilities, for example, might not report to credit bureaus, although they could eventually suspend services.

"The key recommendation here is to make the minimum payment on credit card bills, even as repugnant as I hope that is to people," he said. "That's one of the flexibilities of credit cards. If you run short, you can make the minimum, but realize . . . you're buying time at a great expense."

Just how expensive? Someone, for example, who carries a $2,500 credit-card balance at an average interest rate of 18.5 percent would spend more than 30 years to pay the card off if only the minimum payment of 2 percent of the total balance is paid, according to the Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer group based in Salem, Va. Worse, the cardholder would be paying $6,500 in interest over that time, it said.

It's not known how many debtors will end up on this financial treadmill. About two-thirds of all cardholders do carry a balance each month, while 2.56 percent have delinquent accounts, the American Bankers Association said.

The general rule of thumb among banks and other creditors is that total indebtedness per household shouldn't exceed 36 percent of take-home pay each month, according to Robert Fazzini, president of commercial lending at Busey Bank in Bloomington, Ill.

"If you're over that, sometimes it's OK, but you're living with more debt than the average person is," he said.

Fazzini said individuals who run into financial difficulties should contact their creditors immediately.

"Most bankers appreciate it if you're going to be late with payments to call and tell them and explain why," he said. "What we don't like is not knowing."

He said some banks may waive late-payment fees for customers in otherwise good standing with reasonable explanations for their tardiness, or they might even consider restructuring the loan payments or payment dates.

Late-payment fees vary, although the industry average among mortgage lenders if 5 percent beyond the due date, bankers say.

Credit card issuers typically charge either a flat rate of around $15, or around 2 percent of the minimum payment that's late, said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America.

Susswein said late fees have risen steadily in recent years, especially when interest rates were low. "Issuers in general are looking toward fees as a way to maintain high income levels."

So, when is a payment treated as late? "Banks don't usually consider a payment late until it's a week behind," Fazzini said.

Bankers say they make that determination based on when a check is received, not when the mailed payment is postmarked.

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Fazzini said many banks are willing to overlook one late payment provided all others throughout the year were on time. Late customers are often contacted around two weeks following one missed payment, the credit reporting agencies that keep track of all individuals' credit histories are contacted after 30 days, he said.

"Your credit report is like a little shadow that follows you. If it notes you were late in payments, that tells (future) creditors you were a reluctant payer, and thus, would be a bad credit risk," said Beverly Tuttle, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Connecticut.

The service, based in Hartford, Conn., is part of the nonprofit National Foundation for Consumer Credit network based in Silver Spring, Md., which last year counseled 645,700 financially troubled families.

The foundation said it sees an increase in activity just after the holidays.

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