Holiday Debt Hangover

It’s Jan. 1 and your head’s pounding, your hands are shaking, and you’ve got a bad case of the chills. No, you don’t have the flu. What you’ve got is the holiday debt blues. Two solid months of office parties, gift shopping, and entertaining have taken a heavy toll on your cash flow and your credit cards. And all you have to show for it is a stack of bills, a depleted bank account, and the fear that you’re not going to see financial solvency anytime soon.

Latonia Pulley, 39, has been down that road. For years, she and her girlfriends shopped until they dropped. “We worked extra jobs so we’d have more money to spend on Christmas,” says the speech instructor at Baltimore County Community College, who used to spend between $2,000 and $3,000 each Christmas. “The whole theme of the holiday was about who was going to buy the most.” At the height of her debting days, Pulley, who was making $8.50 an hour, had almost $15,000 in credit card debt, carrying a 22% interest rate.

Pulley is far from alone. The National Retail Federation predicts that shoppers will have spent $219.9 billion on Christmas 2004, a 4.5% increase from last year. This year’s hot items included home-related merchandise and designer clothing. According to the NRF, the holiday season accounts for nearly one-quarter, or 22.83%, of annual retail sales. Now that you know you’re in good company, what’s next?

The first step is to face the music, according to Judy Lawrence, a budget coach and the author of The Budget Kit: The Common Cents Money Management Workbook (Dearborn Trade Publishing; $18.95). “As the post-holiday credit card bills come rolling in, assess when the totals are due, how many credit cards you have, the percentage rates for each card, as well as the minimum due,” she says. Before you begin hyperventilating, remember that this information is not a reason to beat yourself up.

If most of your debt is credit card related, take action now. Late payments can turn into bad credit, which can prevent you from owning a home or even getting a job. “Call and negotiate for a lower rate, a reduced interest rate, or a promotional package,” says Lawrence. “If your credit card company balks, tell them you plan to move to another card.” Cheryl D. Broussard, a registered financial adviser and author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Financial Independence: Smart Ways to Take Charge of Your Money, Build Wealth, and Achieve Financial Security (Penguin Books; $15.95), says you may be able to convince the credit card company to drop interest charges for a few months. Although many people are tempted to roll over their debt to a zero percentage card, Lawrence warns consumers to proceed with caution. Having a zero balance on your old card may tempt you to charge new items. You don’t want to go there.

Pay off your lowest credit card balance first. “It’s not really true that you’ll never get out of debt if