Simon Read: Spending won't lead to a happy Christmas

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The Independent Online

More than half of people who use a credit or store card feel that meeting the minimum repayment is a burden, according to research published this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Alarmingly, 15 per cent of people fail to meet some of their repayments, the ONS said. On the other hand, the same survey reported that household wealth reached a record £9 trillion in Great Britain between 2006 and 2008, with the average wealth of households estimated at a healthy-looking £204,500.

But the survey failed to divulge just how much of that wealth was bought on tick, or credit. With Christmas upon us, many millions of people have been flashing their plastic to buy gifts for loved ones – but how many of those millions will have been spending well beyond their means? The ease of using a credit card means it's easy to forget the consequences.

But getting into debt can have serious consequences, and a happy Christmas could be soon followed by a gloomy New Year when the bills start arriving and remain unpaid. One of the main problems with using a credit card for spending is that it is simply too easy to overspend. And the ease with which it has in recent years been possible to pick up a piece of plastic loaded with thousands of pounds of ready credit only adds to the problem. Don't think I'm having a pop at credit card companies. I'm not. They have every right to make money from their cards, although I hope that bosses do have one or two sleepless nights over the number of people they lead down the overspending path to money misery.

For, despite the notion promoted in one credit card commercial that splashing out on shiny things is "priceless", what really is priceless, frankly, is the peace of mind of knowing that you're not up to your ears in debt. Sadly, the number of people unable to resist the temptation to put things on plastic and spend way beyond their means is growing fast. The latest debt figures published by the Bank of England show that bad debts from credit cards doubled in just three months this summer, leaping from £812m to £1.6bn between July and September.

Of course, many people are not mindlessly overspending or indulging themselves in unaffordable retail therapy. Instead they may be forced to use plastic cards because they feel they have no other place to turn. But there is always a solution. Sometimes it can simply be that people need help with their budgeting and spending habits. Even making a spending diary can help make people realise where they are wasting cash and where they can make cutbacks. And the cutbacks can mean that they don't actually need to borrow money to survive. In other words, they may actually be able to live within their means.

If you know anyone who is struggling with debt, the best Christmas present you can give them this year is to point them in the direction of some free help. Give them the number of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service's helpline on 0800 138 1111, where budgeting and debt advice is available for nothing.

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