Act early to wipe out new year credit card debt
THE silly season might be over but the debt hangover is not for thousands of Australians who are expected to pay the price for festive splurges well into 2017.
Roy Morgan research for The Salvation Army suggests 1.8 million people will take two to three months to pay off their Christmas credit card debt and 476,000 people will take six months or longer.
Financial counselling services are responding to a spike in calls as post-Christmas bills roll in and families struggle to cover the cost of festive purchases put on plastic.
The Salvation Army's free financial counselling service, Moneycare, has reported a rise in demand over the holiday period while Financial Counselling Australia CEO Fiona Guthrie says the organisation expects an influx of calls this month.
"At the start of the new year it becomes front of mind as the bills start to hit and you spent more than what you expected," Ms Guthrie says.
"It also coincides with children going back to school, which is often an expensive time for families."
Ms Guthrie's advice to people struggling with debt is to act early.
She says the first step is to stop using your card, look at what you owe and work out a strategy to tackle the debt.
If you have more than one credit card, she advises paying off the one with the highest interest rate or the smallest debt first.
Ms Guthrie encourages people to ask for help if they need it, by contacting a financial counsellor or their credit provider to organise a repayment plan.
She says consumers should be wary of deals spruiking a quick fix for their financial problems.
Balance transfer offers also needed to be considered carefully unless people were extremely disciplined in paying it off during the interest-free period.
"The risk is that you don't close off your old card and at the end of your honeymoon period you've got debts on two cards," she said.
While many people under financial stress turn to payday loans and consumer leases, Moneycare financial counsellor Kristen Hartnett warns increasing levels of debt "will only exacerbate the problem".
Mrs Hartnett says financial counsellors are always a safer alternative.
"A financial counsellor can advocate on your behalf and negotiate a payment plan with the people you owe money to," she says.
Phone the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 or visit ndh.org.au if you are struggling with debt.
Get financial goals on track in 2017
Vows to save more and spend less are a dime a dozen at this time of the year, so it pays to have a plan to get your goals on track.
Research conducted for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission shows about 45% of Australians have a short-term financial plan in place and only 25% have a long-term plan.
Try these new year financial tips from ASIC's MoneySmart's Miles Larbey:
1. Review your finances
Work out your financial goals and put a plan in place to achieve them.
"Use ASIC's MoneySmart interactive budget planner to help you work out where your money is going and where you might be able to save," Mr Larbey says.
2. Take control of your debts
"Get your finances on track this year by taking control of your debts, including any credit cards which may have been over-used during the festive season," Mr Larbey says.
Use the MoneySmart credit card calculator to work out how much you can save by making higher than minimum repayments.
3. Create a savings buffer
"Having a savings buffer or emergency fund gives you breathing space to deal with life's ups and downs, and means you won't have to borrow money if something unexpected happens," he says.
Try the "set and forget" method - open a separate savings account and schedule regular automatic payments.
4. Maximise your super
"Combining multiple super accounts to save fees, making extra contributions and reviewing your investment options can make a big difference to your retirement funds," he says.
For free financial guidance visit moneysmart.gov.au.