published Monday, December 12th, 2011

'Tis the season ... for credit card debt?

It's hard to believe that Christmas will be here in less than two weeks.

Have you put up a tree and finished all your decorating? Have you planned the menu for a homemade Christmas feast with family and friends?

If you're like many Americans, you may still have some shopping to do for those on your Christmas list.

And that raises the potentially ugly topics of spending and credit card debt.

To be sure, it's fun buying nice gifts for loved ones and seeing their reactions and hearing their expressions of gratitude when they open those presents. And there's certainly nothing wrong with spreading Christmas cheer.

But many of us do much, if not all, of that spending on credit -- even if we know we do not have the money in the bank to avoid hefty finance charges by paying off the bills in full as soon as they come due. But as is always the case, the bills do arrive -- and sooner than you might have thought when you were making the purchases in the first place.

That can be a serious problem, especially when so many Americans these days are unemployed or cannot find more than part-time work. Although their financial resources may be more limited, their desire to maintain previous holiday spending levels can still be strong, leading them to make unwise decisions in the Christmas season. That can push some people who are already in difficult financial circumstances toward bankruptcy. And those of us who remain fully employed can get caught in the credit trap as well.

How big is the problem? Well, total U.S. credit card debt is moving toward an alarming $1 trillion these days. Not all of that is from excessive Christmas spending, of course, but the holidays do tend to bring out the shopper in a lot of people.

Now more than perhaps any other time of the year, that calls for thrift and common sense.

We can avoid January regrets by practicing some spending restraint in December. That includes things such as mapping out a budget and deciding in advance how much you plan to spend on each person on your Christmas list -- and then sticking firmly to that decision.

It's also wise to reflect on Christmases past. Were your happiest Christmases the ones on which you happened to get exactly the right gift? Or were they the ones when you shared special times with family and created memories that last a lifetime? In other words, was it the lavish spending of money on each other or the lavish spending of time with each other that made those Christmases most memorable? We suspect that for a lot of people, it's the latter.

Even more important, though, is remembering "the reason for the season" -- Jesus' coming to Earth for the redemption of mankind. No finer gift has ever been given.

And no present that we purchase with a credit card or by any other means can ever match it.

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