In our opinion: Christmas credit card debt a tradition we could do without

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Nov. 19, 2009 file picture stickers on a window show which credit cards are valid in a shop in Frankfurt, central Germany. There are some traditions that all of us can do without — namely, the time-honored holiday practice of decking the halls with credit card debt.

Michael Probst, File, Associated Press

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With the Christmas season officially underway, people take the time to continue traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Many of these traditions are sources of happiness and joy and they should be celebrated and embraced. There are some traditions, however, that all of us can do without — namely, the time-honored holiday practice of decking the halls with credit card debt.

A recent analysis of consumer credit card data shows that as a nation, we're getting an early start in spending beyond our means. From July to September of this year, the average credit card debt per borrower rose by 4.9 percent. In December of 2011, 14.1 million Americans reported that they were still paying off debts from the previous Christmas. Presuming that such profligate spenders haven't changed their habits, it's likely that this year they'll be piling new debt on top of the old, making it harder and harder for them to dig out from under their pile of bills.

That harsh reality may account for the startling results of a recent poll reported by NBC News that claims a whopping 45 percent of all Americans would prefer to skip Christmas altogether, citing financial concerns as the primary reason. Not surprisingly, that same percentage anticipates that they won't have the money to pay for Christmas without pulling out the plastic.

When almost half of the country wants to skip the "most wonderful time of the year" simply because they can't afford it, then something is seriously out of whack.

Of course, retailers are doing everything they possibly can to help you drown in red ink. Many Black Friday sales were moved up to "Grey Thursday," a day previously known simply as Thanksgiving. Stores will offer all manner of layaway plans and creative credit solutions that promise pain-free holiday spending. But it's all an illusion. Credit card spending is anything but pain-free. It's only pain postponed until such time as it's amplified by exorbitant interest rates.

We recognize that advocating fiscal restraint in preparation for Santa's visit is often easier said than done. But a little foresight and planning can go a long way toward avoiding excess. Those who cut back on the price of their gifts in order to live within their means generally discover that they don't have to cut back on the joyful associations with family and friends that make the season bright.

It may not be as exciting or colorful as some holiday customs, but a tradition of avoiding Christmas credit-card debt will be the gift that keeps on giving all year long.

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