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The roar of the Wall Street bull keeps on attracting investors to stocks and stock mutual funds, a trend many pundits believe will continue through-out the holiday season and beyond.

This rollicking good time is courtesy of a somewhat better-than-expected economy, low interest rates, modest inflation and a divided government in Washington that's unlikely to pull any surprises.Unfortunately, the good fortune can make giddy folks overlook a harsh reality: Unless you can beat the 18 percent average interest charged on your credit card debt with an investment that will take off like a skyrocket and stay airborne, you'd better start paying off your credit card debt now.

"Consumers coming into counseling agencies around the country are carrying higher debt levels than in the past, and their biggest mistakes occur during the holiday season, when they shop with their heart, rather than their head," said Suzanne Boas, president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.

There are fears the current good-time attitude will boost credit card spending and lead many Americans into desperate financial straits in 1997.

A record $453 billion is currently owed on credit cards, a $40 billion increase over last year. The average person is carrying a $3,900 balance. Nearly a million consumers have already filed personal bankruptcy in this otherwise resilient economic year.

"People have used home equity lines of credit and refinanced the loans on their homes, taking the equity in the housing market down to record lows," said Diane Swonk, deputy chief economist at First Chicago/NBD Corp. "At the same time, even the wealthiest households don't have the stability of income that they once had, and our nation's savings rate remains low."

While other interest rates have tumbled, the average credit card rate remains about 18 percent, compared to 17.6 percent in 1994 and 16.5 percent in 1993.

Following a two-month decline, credit card charge-offs resumed their upward climb to $627 million in September, according to Fitch Investors Service. That represents 5.63 percent of card companies' outstanding receivables. A charge-off means a consumer has been in default six months and prospects for recovery abandoned. Fitch predicts consumer loan quality will deteriorate further through year's end.

"Charge-offs have risen steadily and steeply since November 1995 with only seasonal declines," explained Michael Dean, associate director of asset-backed securities at Fitch. "We've seen banks and credit card lenders tighten underwriting standards and raise annual fees and late charges to combat the problem."

The rate game is in full swing. Many cards offer initial "teaser" rates lasting only six months to lure customers. Card issuers have also initiated "tiered" rates that boost the rate charged those customers late on credit payments on that card or others.

Be on guard: Expect to find credit in new places this year.

"You can use credit cards for the movie theater, the supermarket and the doctor's office, making it easier to rack up debt," observed Ruth Susswein, executive director of the Bankcard Holders of America in Salem, Va. "Many issuers encourage consumers to carry a bigger card balance of $2,500 or more with them by giving a better rate for doing so, a tactic you definitely shouldn't fall for."

Pay off credit balances, try to avoid piling up debt this holiday season, use fewer cards and seek out low-rate cards. That done, invest in all those stocks you just can't resist.

The lowest-rate (non-teaser) no-fee standard bank cards available nationally, according to RAM Research, were recently:

AFBA Industrial Bank, Colorado, 800-776-2265, variable rate of 11.4 percent.

Union Federal Savings Bank, Indiana, 800-284-8835, fixed rate of 11.5 percent.

Pullman Bank & Trust Co., Illinois, 800-785-5626, variable rate of 12.25 percent.