As the glow of the holidays fades, the reality of holiday debt may be dawning.
"When the January bills start to hit, people are aware they have overspent," said Kylie Delgado, outreach coordinator for Guidewell Financial Solutions, a nationwide nonprofit credit counseling agency that works with the military community through its affiliation with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "They're saying, 'Did I really spend $1,000? Did I really spend $500?' Then the rent and the car payment are due."
Military life can wreak additional havoc on finances in some cases, because of permanent change-of-station moves, deployments and other facts of life. In a recent Blue Star Family survey, 38 percent of active-duty families who responded said they had more than $5,000 in credit card debt.
"Service members are dealing with so many other challenges – deployments, moves, mental and physical issues," said Soneyet Muhammad, director of education for Clarifi, a nonprofit credit counseling agency that also works with the military community on financial education and counseling. Problems are often compounded when there are children in the family, she said, "especially as toys and gadgets become more expensive."
But if you've spent more than you could afford for the holidays, it's time to tackle that debt before it snowballs, the experts say. Otherwise, it'll cost you.
If you're having trouble paying that $500 credit card debt now – and you haven't paid it off by the time the holidays roll around a year from now – that $500 could grow to $600, if your credit card's annual percentage rate is 20 percent. If it's $1,000 at 20 percent, a year from now it will be $1,200. Those bargain gifts have just gotten more expensive.
How you tackle that debt "all depends where you're coming from – what's important to you, the resources you have available, and what kind of debt you're in," Muhammad said. You may be able to immediately make a dent in the debt, or you may need some professional advice to help you find a pathway to becoming debt-free.
Eleven tips from the experts:
- Return unwanted items now. Did you buy decorations and not use them, or get some extra gifts for company that never stopped by? Take them back now and reduce your debt with the account credit, Delgado said. Did you receive a dud gift? Perhaps you have the gift receipt and could return it for a refund – or at least exchange it. If you get a refund, immediately make a debt payment to your own credit card.
- Perform a complete debt audit. Add up all of your family debt, including any your significant other might have piled up. "You don’t know how to fix it if you don’t know how much it is," Delgado said.
- Make a spending plan. "Strategize what you have to spend for rent, food, and necessities, and use what’s left over to pay debt," Delgado said. Now might be the time to evaluate your spending habits; it usually takes about three months of tracking your cash to understand how you’re using your money, Muhammad said.
- Find the flex points. Look at the expenses that are somewhat flexible every month, like food, entertainment, recreation and clothing. When you’re buying that cup of coffee, consider whether you want that instant gratification, or the satisfaction of putting another $5 toward your debt.
- Focus. Put every possible extra dollar toward eliminating debt. You absolutely must continue to make the minimum payments on each of your credit cards. If you don’t pay the minimum balance, the companies may add late fees of $40 or so to your bill. But be sure to tackle one debt at a time. Where to start? Financial sense might lead you to the card with the highest interest rate, but you might stay motivated if you take down the smallest balance and make your way up, Muhammad said. When you can see progress faster, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that you’re pulling yourself out of the hole, she said.
- Little bits help. Even putting an extra $5, $10 or $20 a month can make a difference. There are many calculator tools to help: The free one at PowerPay.org (email account required) "is a great way to see how fast you can eliminate debt with the money available," said Madeleine Greene, an accredited financial counselor who has worked with the military community for years, including working as financial counselor in the Defense Department’s Military Family Life Counselor program. This calculator was developed by Utah State University, and the site lets you figure out the smartest way to apply extra money to one of your debts – whether it’s a one-time extra payment, or at other intervals such as annually or quarterly.
- Go cold turkey. "Put your household on a ‘no credit diet,’ until the outstanding holiday bills are paid off," Greene said. Pay cash, use a debit card, or write checks.
- Pull your credit report. It's critical to see a complete picture of your debt, and to make sure the debt you’re paying is actually yours. Federal law allows you to get free credit reports each year from each of the credit reporting companies that keep reports: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. You can get them free, by law, by calling Annual Credit Report at 877-322-8228; or by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Help is available ... If you’re having trouble paying your bills, don't wait to seek assistance. There is plenty of free, reputable help available to those in the military community.
- ... but get the right kind. Be careful of those "get rid of debt quick" and "debt consolidation" schemes. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Muhammad said. Sometimes it’s difficult to untangle yourself -- it may be difficult to get them to stop debiting their monthly fee from your bank account, she said. "And when you’re dealing with credit, you’re dealing with Social Security numbers. Be careful whom you engage with."
- Take the long view. Start looking over the horizon, doing things that will help you stay out of debt. Set aside money for emergencies; experts recommend building up savings that are equivalent to at least three or four months’ worth of living expenses. Once you’ve wiped out your holiday debt, start a savings account for your 2017 holiday spending and contribute to it monthly ... so you don’t have to go into debt again next year.
"There's no magic bullet for everyone, " said Greene. "It's just deciding to be serious. "Military members are good at target practice. Take aim at your debt, get it in your sights, and take action. Don't beat yourself up about how high it is now."
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.