It's that plastic time of year. The season when all those credit cards you've been carrying around in your wallet or purse are in danger of melting down through overuse.
But take heart! Bankcard Holders of America (BHA) is rushing to your rescue with some thoughts on how to avoid the wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth that will surely be yours in January if you get carried away in December."Consumer debt has reached record levels this year," said Elgie Holstein, director of the Virginia-based BHA, a national consumer group that focuses on consumer credit issues.
"For many shoppers, misuse of their credit cards this season could push them over the `debt cliff,' obligating them for payments they will simply be unable to handle."
He said Americans currently owe $177.5 billion on their credit cards, a staggering figure that is sure to swell during the next four weeks of Christmas shopping.
"Credit cards can give you a false sense of security at this time of year," said Holstein. "You can get caught up in the spirit of giving now, without having the money to pay the credit card bills when they come due later."
So what can you do, besides cutting your cards up into little plastic strips and burying them in the back yard? Glad you asked. BHA says you can:
- Make a gift-buying budget and - this takes willpower, of course - stick to it.
- Go to the trouble of finding out which of the cards you are carrying - whether national credit card or store card - charge the lowest interest rates and use them. If you are shocked at the rate charged on all of them, consider adding a new, low-interest card to your collection.
BHA offers two lists of banks around the country that issue inexpensive credit cards. The "Low Interest Rate List" and the "No Annual Fee List" are available for $1.50 each. To get a copy send your request along with payment to BHA, 460 Spring Park Place, Suite 1000, Herndon, VA 22070.
For anyone who has had trouble getting a credit card, BHA offers the "Secured Credit Card List" for $3. These are cards backed by your deposit of several hundred dollars in the issuing bank. You get a line of credit equal to all or most of your deposit and have the opportunity to build up a favorable credit history.
- Pay off credit card bills as soon as you can. Holiday bills will come due in 1989 when tax deductions allowed for credit-card interest will drop from 40 percent (for payments made this year) to 20 percent.
You might even want to consider paying off your post-holiday credit card debt with a personal loan or home equity loan. You'll pay much lower interest and, with a home equity loan, the interest will remain fully deductable. Just don't go out and run up your credit card balances again.
- Get rid of all those extra cards you're carrying. It would be a real headache if your wallet were lost or stolen; the extra cards mean extra temptation to spend too much, and you are probably paying annual fees for all of them. BHA says one card should suffice or at the most, two, if you have to keep personal and business expenses separate.
If you have several cards because you need the purchasing power, call the bank and request a higher limit on one, rather than getting another card.
- Keep all of your credit card receipts and destroy your carbon copies. In the wrong hands, they can be used to run up charges on your account.
Also, keep your card in view when using it to make a purchase, compare your receipts to your billing statements, never lend your card to anyone, and never give your card number over the phone unless you know the company is reputable. Put any questions about your bill in writing to the issuing company.
- Be wary of deferred payment plans offered during the holidays. Many of these "no payments until March" offers carry high interest rates and finance charges that accrue during the deferred payment period.