Consumers face massive debts in spending spree hangover

CONSUMERS have racked up several thousands of euro in debts due to massive Christmas shopping sprees, financial experts said yesterday.

Those facing heavy debt loads have been urged by the Government to contact its money and budgeting advice service immediately.

Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs Mary Coughlan warned that money problems will only get worse if people ignore them. She said the final two weeks of January are the busiest time of the year for the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS), operated by her department from local social welfare offices.

And she urged those facing severe post-Christmas debt difficulties to address the problem now rather than put it off.

"Our money advisers will help people to assess their current situation and make budget plans for the future. The nature or extent of debts will not shock a money adviser. Creditors welcome an approach by the service," Ms Coughlan said.

Some people on low incomes run up debts of around €2,500 and they are unable to pay ESB, gas and phone bills in January, MABS spokesman Michael Culloty said.

MABS, now in its 11th year, provides free and confidential advice, and aims to help people regain control of their personal finances.

"January and February are our busiest times because many people decide to splash out for Christmas and treat their children. They buy toys and designer clothes for their kids and they're faced with huge debt at the beginning of the year," Mr Culloty said.

Those worst hit are cash-strapped parents who use illegal money lenders that charge 190% interest.

"These bills then become a priority and people usually contact us when they are threatened with a phone or an electricity disconnection," Mr Culloty said.

He added that the credit industry is not looking at people's ability to repay debt when they offer generous packages before Christmas.

MABS operates a scheme in conjunction with the country's Credit Unions where small monthly installments are made to creditors, mostly to services providers such as phone companies, credit cards, the ESB, Bord Gáis and local authorities.

The Director of Consumer Affairs, Carmel Foley, had urged consumers before Christmas not to overuse credit during the festive period.

She said the widespread availability of credit is resulting in people spending too much and then having to face crippling debts in the new year.

There is €1,300 million outstanding on Irish credit cards, double the amount four years ago, and interest rates charged on cards here is 7% above the EU average.

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