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Shedding holiday debt possible

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NEW YORK — As the holiday credit card bills come flooding in, you may be feeling overwhelmed. But don't despair — there are strategies you can adopt to regain your financial footing if you're willing to invest the time and effort.

"The fact is, shedding holiday debt can be as daunting as shedding holiday weight," said June Walbert, a certified financial planner with USAA, a financial services company in San Antonio that specializes in helping U.S. servicemen and their families. "That doesn't mean it can't be done."

The first step for those who have overindulged on their credit cards is to stop charging immediately and move to paying cash, Walbert said.

"It's counterproductive to keep piling on debt, because you're just digging yourself in deeper," she said.

Then, Walbert said, you need to set aside time to figure out how much you owe on all your cards and how much you think you can pay each month to reduce the balances. It won't happen fast if you're only making minimum payments, she added.

Say you charged $700 at Christmas or Hanukkah on a card that carries a 13 percent interest rate and requires a minimum payment of $28 a month. Pay just the minimum every month, and it will take you more than five years to pay off the debt and will have cost you more than $210 in interest.

If you double your monthly payment to $56, the debt will be gone in 14 months, and the interest will be just $56.30.

Lea Anne Cozart, a marketing coordinator for a construction company in Colorado Springs, Colo., knows what a challenge debt can be. In the mid-1990s, she tightened her budget and tapped her savings to pay off the credit card debt she had run up in college.

"It felt good," she remembers. "But then life happened."

Cozart lost her job and had trouble finding another with comparable pay; her partner required treatment for breast cancer; then Cozart injured her back and had to have surgery.

"I ran the credit card debt back up, and because I didn't have the earning power to deplete it, it just kept accumulating," she said. "The bills were overwhelming, and it was really depressing."

About 2 1/2 years ago, Cozart sought the help of a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency and started paying down her debt, which also includes student loans and a car loan.

How does she do it?

"I cut up my credit cards first thing," she said. "And I track my spending because I have to stay on a real strict budget."

Cozart already is planning for the day she's debt-free. The money now going to pay debts will be diverted to a savings account to cover emergencies, higher mortgage payments on her home so she can pay it off faster and funding for a retirement account.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Gail Cunningham, an officer with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas, which has been working with Cozart, said people have become so used to purchasing with credit cards that "a lot of them were probably still paying for Christmas 2004 when they charged for Christmas 2005."

January and February are typically counselors' busiest months as people grapple with their holiday bills, she said. More people seem to be in trouble this year, she added, because high energy bills have squeezed their budgets more than usual.

An important first step in dealing with credit card debt is to take stock of where you are, Cunningham said.

"I've seen people walk through our door with a plastic grocery bag filled with unopened statements," she said. "You have to open them and face up to it."

Then, she said, call your creditors to see if they will offer you some help.

"Often creditors will understand the situation and, perhaps, offer a lower interest for a certain period of time to give the consumer the ability to get back on his feet," Cunningham said.

Next, consumers need to figure out how to increase their payments.

"You need to know where your money is going," Cunningham said. "Most people know how much they're paying in rent or for their car. But they don't know the incidental expenses, like how much they spend eating out, and that's where they need to cut back."

Another way to increase debt payments is by getting a part-time job, she said.

"I tell people, 'You can do anything for a short amount of time.' So find a job you think you'll like, say working for three months at a music store," she said. "Devote all of that new income to pay down debt, then see how you feel at the end of three months."

Many find that dealing with their debt is such a relief that they stick to the part-time work until it's paid off, she said.