For some, Christmas will linger long after the gifts are unwrapped and the relatives have gone home.

As the warm-and-fuzzy memories of Christmas morning fade, some will face the cold, hard reality of hefty credit card balances they cannot possibly pay off next month.

According to an annual holiday shopping survey by the Myvesta Foundation, a nonprofit consumer education organization, the average American spent $747 on holiday gifts in 2005, up 4.3 percent from the average of $716 in 2004.

Kathy Leary, a certified credit counselor at Central Illinois Debt Management and Credit Education, Inc. of Champaign/Danville, said guilt is the No. 1 reason people overspend at the holidays.

“I’ve had people tell me they have to have Christmas for their kids, even if they’re struggling (financially),” she said.

Others tell Leary they feel pressured to give expensive gifts or buy presents for every family member — even relatives they only see once a year — for fear of being upstaged or looked upon as being cheap.

“I ask people how much they spent at Christmas, and people tell me they don’t know because they put it on their credit card,” Leary said.

Worse yet, some folks use more than one credit card on their Christmas shopping sprees.

“Using multiple credit cards will cause you to lose track of what you’ve spent,” she said.

Leary understands how people can get caught up in the Christmas spirit and overspend, especially when retailers this time of year offer hard-to-resist sales.

“People see these sales and bargains and think, ‘I am saving money. I’m getting an amazing deal,’” she said.

But that kind of logic can backfire because sales spur some people to buy even more items they don’t need or won’t use.

Digging out of debt

So, how does a person get the ghost of Christmas spending off her credit card statements in a timely fashion?

“November and December are slow times for us because nobody wants to talk about it because they’re out spending money,” Leary said.

“They say they’ll fix it later, they’ll come in in January and February.”

Leary advises people to take a hard look at their monthly expenses, trim any excess and pay as much as they can on their credit card bills.

“They need to see what they can live on and what they can put toward debt,” she said.

Keith Souza, president of Souza Financial Group in Danville and a personal financial planner, agreed.

“If you went out on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and spent $1,000, you should ask yourself, ‘How am I going to fit that $1,000 into my budget over the next three, six or 12 months?’”

With some credit cards charging more than 20 percent interest on outstanding balances, paying the credit card company’s suggested minimum payment — which is generally 2 percent of the balance — will just extend the debt for years.

Souza said if someone carrying a credit card balance of $1,000 only makes the 2 percent minimum payment every month, at 20 percent interest they are only paying $40 a year on the $1,000 debt.

“People need to remember that credit cards are for cash needs. It’s like a short-term loan to yourself,” he said. “It’s not a vehicle for financing.”

Souza said many use their federal income tax return to pay off Christmas debt, but Leary cautions against banking on that, especially going to a payday loan business for a cash advance based on an estimated tax return.

“They charge a fee for that service,” she said. “And sometimes people don’t get the money they thought they were going to get with their tax refund.”

One strategy Leary suggests for people with good credit is calling their credit card company and asking to have their interest rate lowered.

Transferring the balance to another credit card offering zero percent interest for several months also can help get the debt paid down quicker.

“Balance transfer deals can be good, but pay attention to the default rate,” she said. “It could be 29.9 percent, which means you can never, ever be late with a payment.”

Plan for next year

Leary and Souza said the best advice is to start planning now for next Christmas.

That certainly doesn’t mean getting carried away all over again.

“Don’t get caught up buying Christmas gifts for next year at the day-after-Christmas sales,” Leary cautioned.

It’s OK to stock up on discounted wrapping paper and Christmas cards, but resist buying gifts this far in advance, she said. What you think is an appropriate gift for someone now might lose its appeal by next Christmas.

Souza advises coming up with a plan and sticking to it.

“The plan shouldn’t be: What’s my spending limit on this credit card?” Souza said. “You should have a plan on how you’re going to pay for it.

“Have a plan and set a limit on how much you’re going to spend. Go shopping with a list.”

Souza also suggests setting money aside now.

“If you put $25 a month into a savings account or Christmas club account, at the end of the year you’ll have $300 for Christmas,” he said.

Leary tells some of her clients to consider getting a seasonal job or making a hobby profitable so they will have extra spending money at the holidays.

“If you get a seasonal job somewhere you like, you can make a little extra money and get employee discounts on the merchandise,” she said.

To limit spending next Christmas, Leary suggests larger families draw names so family members can focus on buying one nice gift for a relative instead of lots of presents for everyone.

“I can’t stress planning enough,” Leary said. “One thing we know for sure is Christmas is coming again December 25th.

“A flat tire or a furnace repair is unexpected, but Christmas is December 25th every year.”