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Too many consumers get consumed by credit card debt

The average client who walks into the offices of the non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling Services has nine credit cards totaling $18,000 of debt.

Obviously, some folks are not very good at telling themselves "no."

"It will be better. That's our mind-set," said Johnny Cantrell, chief operating officer at CCCS in Lexington, a subsidiary of Apprisen Financial Advocates. "We've gravitated too much to social status and instant gratification. We are spending way above our means.

"We are good people who use bad judgement," he said.

This down economy has not changed that scenario much at all. Even with employment worries and an uncertain future, some parents will spend $5,000 on two children for Christmas.

When Cantrell asks those clients why they spent so much using credit cards, they say they want their children to have the sought-after gifts that their classmates have.

Cantrell said January and February are his two busiest months, as clients seek help for mounting credit card debt. November and December are two of the slowest months because future clients are out spending.

Telling people not to spend this time of year can be a waste of breath. "Consumers consume," Cantrell said.

But there are some things you can do to prevent Christmas-spending hangovers, Cantrell said. For example: Use layaway plans, stick to a budget, make fewer shopping trips, and shop with cash, checks or debit cards.

Or, Cantrell said, set up Christmas Club accounts with your banks, just as our parents did, so you can have a set amount of money to spend during the holidays.

Definitely avoid taking cash advances from credit cards, he said, because the interest rates are so high.

But if you don't follow that advice, Cantrell said, you need to pay off the credit card charges as soon as possible, starting with the card with the highest interest rates.

You can dedicate your "extra" paychecks to that debt, he said. Normally, if you get paid weekly, you get four "extra" paychecks a year, and if you get paid biweekly, you get two.

But because of a quirk in the calendar, those of us who get paid weekly will see a fifth "extra" paycheck, either in 2009 or in 2010, and those of us who get paid biweekly will see a third "extra" paycheck. It will depend on whether you get paid before or after Jan. 1.

Those "extra" paychecks could put a dent in your debt.

If you find yourself in trouble, Cantrell said, you can call his office at (859) 259-9999 and set up a free consultation.

Or, he said, if you aren't sure about coming to his office, there is Web visor, an online, non-human survey that will provide a complete advice booklet at the end, customized to their personal financial situation. Go to

Webvisor started two weeks ago.

"I would love to say this economy makes us more prudent, but I haven't seen that," Cantrell said.

So take advantage of the bargains on Black Friday and during the holiday shopping period, but don't cave in to social pressure or overspending.

Make this a frugal Christmas, and life will be much merrier next year.