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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Jim Jeppson of West Jordan says it it weren't for credit cards, he wouldn't be able to make his house payment. He says he has also dipped into his savings.

Thank goodness for plastic. It's helping Jim Jeppson keep a roof over his head.

"If it hadn't been for credit cards, I wouldn't be able to pay my house payment," the 68-year-old West Jordan resident said this past week after filling up at a local gas station.

Like Jeppson, more people in Utah and across the nation are using credit to pay for basics such as food and gas, as they struggle to keep pace with rising costs, said Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Silver Spring, Md.

"Consumers are putting more charges on their credit cards because they're funneling all available money toward their mortgage payment," she said.

Consumer credit balances rose $15 billion between February and March to $2.56 trillion, the Federal Reserve reported this month. That rise comes at an annual rate of 7.2 percent. Revolving credit — credit cards are an example — increased for the month at a 7.9 percent annual rate and accounted for $957 billion, or about 38 percent, of the total.

Some of the debt that consumers are racking up goes for luxury items. But as basic prices rise, some of that credit-card use is for survival, because people are on a fixed income, or because they are already overextended. Either way, the consequences can be severe, including bankruptcy, especially in the event of a medical emergency or job loss, said Bill Crim, vice president of community impact for United Way of Salt Lake.

"The economic consequences we're facing in this country are serious," he said.

According to some national sources, having $9,000 in credit-card debt is pretty average. Barbara Holcomb of Kaysville owes that much, and she's happy to talk about it, mainly because it's $7,000 less than it was in October.

The Fairfield Junior High English teacher and reading specialist has enrolled in Financial Peace University, part of Zions Bank's End Needless Debt program. She consolidated $16,000 in credit-card debt on another card's introductory no-interest rate and chips at the balance in $900 monthly chunks.

"I didn't get into debt overnight. If you allow it, it just sneaks up on you. We went out, we ate, we played, and at the end of the day, there was a bill," Holcomb said. "I've allowed money to put me in a position that I shouldn't be in, and I'm remedying that situation."

A little over half of Utah residents say they're also paying down their credit-card debt, or at least keeping it steady, according to Dan Jones & Associates survey.

The April 21-24 Deseret News/KSL-TV poll also found that half of the 404 adults surveyed said they had no credit-card debt — a number mirroring national figures from the Federal Reserve. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percent.

About a tenth of the Utahns surveyed in the poll said they have racked up more than $5,000 in credit-card debt, with 6 percent owing more than $10,000. One in every six adults said they owe under $1,000, and one in five owe between $1,000 and $5,000.

Holcomb thinks the numbers are way too rosy. "You go into Wal-Mart, and they're all using cards," she said. "Please!"

Educational programs have been created to help people learn to better manage their credit-card debt. Utah Saves — an initiative of United Way in partnership with Utah State University Extension, AAA and other employers and state agencies — is a social marketing campaign to "raise the profile and peer pressure," as Crim puts it, to help people improve their financial security.

The program is free, and professionals host workshops, give planning consultation with a wealth coach and teach you how to pay off debt, spend less and find deals or invest. Sign up at utahsaves.org.

Holcomb praises financial adviser Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. People enrolled in the program, often offered through local churches, including Christ United Methodist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, average paying off $5,300 in debt and adding $2,700 to savings, Zions Bank reports.

Such programs are helping to change the cultural expectation of spending money, Crim said. He puts it that way, because people know they're supposed to be saving, and say it's important to save for retirement, but then say it's hard, maybe too hard, to do.

With the economic downturn, it really may be impossible for some people to put away savings when they're having such a hard time just getting by. Cunningham said some people are charging even the basics, and she fears the problem may be getting worse. With the Fed reporting a rise in nonrevolving credit balances, she wonders if people are taking out loans to make ends meet.

Crim agreed that the credit-card debt incurred by consumers might not all be gratuitous.

"Some people would look at the credit crisis and mortgage crisis and look at that as the collective impact of lots of people taking or making risky loans, overextending themselves and just not being smart about how we use money," Crim said. "There's a lot of data that suggests people who are living on the edge often are using credit cards to survive the gap between their income and rising costs for food, for housing, for energy, for gas."

Crossroads Urban Center is helping more Utahns — many of whom are seeking help with paying rent. The problem is, instead of needing a couple hundred bucks, they need $1,500, said Crossroads' Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, which advocates for the poor and social justice issues. Crossroads can't afford that.

"We just have to say, 'We are really, really sorry. We cannot help you,"' Hilton said. "It's frustrating."

The cost of everything has gone up, she said. "Housing prices have skyrocketed, wages are stagnant, people's hours and contracts have been cut back, health care is more expensive than ever, more people are uninsured than ever, so there you go."

Jeppson said he saved money for what he calls "old age." Now, he's living off of that money, and it's going fast. Credit cards are filling in gaps. Soon, he says, half-joking, he might have to stop eating.

"When that (savings) goes, there's just not going to be enough money," Jeppson said. As for making it, he said, "we're not, in some ways."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com