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Q&A: Paul Atkinson on holiday debt

Paul Atkinson is chief executive officer of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo. The nonprofit organization's calls increase during the prime holiday spending period. Atkinson discussed ways to control debt during the holidays.

Q: How serious a problem is holiday debt?

A: It's serious to the extent there's only one other period of time throughout the year that consumers normally rack up considerable charged debt, and that would be before school begins. So, it is the largest period of time where purchases take place.

And it's a very stressful time because people feel that it's important to provide gifts for friends and loved ones and, sometimes, it's just not doable but we seem to do it, anyway.

The hangover from holiday debt that occurs in the first three months of the following year is also the busiest time of year for people who are in the credit counseling business.

Q: What role have expensive electronics played in amassing debt?

A: It's significant but it isn't any more significant than sneakers or clothes or anything that is "of the moment."

When you hit a season like the holidays that are coming up, for electronic games, clothes, sneakers and items that are "hot," rational purchasing goes away. Looking for deals goes away because we say, "I've gotta get it."

Years ago, it was the Cabbage Patch dolls and now it's electronic games. It'll always be something as far as the retailers are concerned, and we sometimes throw rational buying habits out the window when these hot items come along.

Q: How can someone avoid debt during the holidays?

A: Have a holiday shopping budget. The other thing that you can do is look toward creative gift giving. Handmade items. Look for deals. There are a lot of shopping deals that are out there. That's the reason people get 10 million pounds of circulars before we hit the streets.

If people just take time to make a budget, make a plan of what they need and where they can go and look for deals, they could possibly save money. Make homemade cookies, or homemade crafts. Those are really nice and very personal items. Sometimes we don't do that enough and it's a huge way to save money.

Q: How can someone of moderate means use credit, wisely?

A: The first thing to do is to avoid last-minute shopping. Last-minute shopping truly is the way to throw rational buying behavior out the window. If you wait until the last minute, you don't even think about price sometimes. You just simply go in and think, "I've got to get this because I've only got so many days left, and I need to get it into the mail."

Shop for deals. Limit the number of credit cards that you take with you when you go shopping.

The last thing is online shopping. You really have to double-check the order that you place, and you particularly have to be aware of checking your statement. Mistakes are made and, often times, we don't think about checking that order before we hit that submit and send button.

We really don't think about checking our statements when they come in for online purchases, and online purchases are a significant portion of the retail business nowadays.

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