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How to handle your bills and get out of debt?

Fond memories of the holidays can become the winter blahs in January, especially if your mailbox is filled with credit-card bills.

"Get out of debt" tops the list of many New Year's resolutions, but you have to have a strategy. The right one will allow you to live well but regularly reduce your debt load. Counselors say it takes three to six years for most clients to erase credit card debt. Here's a way to start:

 Study expenses and find places you can save. Example: You want to quit smoking anyway. If you smoke a carton a week, it costs more than $100 a month. Write down all expenses for a week, and you will come up with the amount you need.

 Check for lower credit card interest rates. Often you can negotiate for a lower rate, which makes more of each payment go to debt reduction.

 Dip into savings, but only if you are determined not to charge again. Your savings may pay 3 percent interest, but credit cards may cost 18 percent.

 Put a small amount of money away each month for emergencies and for the next holiday season.

 Make a habit of using cash. If you run out of money before the end of the week, don't buy anything. Stay home and enjoy being there.

 Ask for help from a debt counselor, or ask your parents for a one-time loan or bailout program. But don't charge more.



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