With the holidays soon coming to an end, the question of how to pay off those holiday bills begins to creep into many consumers' minds. It may not be at the top of your New Year's resolutions list, but focusing on paying off that debt and getting your finances in order is a good idea for beginning the New Year.

How can I take control of my finances?

The best way to take control of your finances is to sit down and assess all your outstanding debts and establish a system for paying them off. Once you have a clear picture how much you owe creditors then it will be easier to create a system for paying your bills. The key is to stop unnecessary spending and pay more than the minimum balance due on credit cards.

How can I avoid racking up interest on my credit cards?

One of the last things that you want to do is allow interest to accrue on your credit cards. Interest rates on most credit cards can be absurdly high and can make the process of paying off your debts frustrating. Be sure to pay more than the minimum due. Making minimum payments can be costly. If you make the minimum payment of $60 on a $3,000 credit card balance would take eight years to pay off and add up to $2,780 worth of interest.

Is it possible to negotiate with credit card companies?

Yes. Many credit card companies are willing to give cardholders options regarding interest rates, fees, and other expenses. If you find that you can't pay your bills on time, contact your creditors immediately. Try to work out a modified payment plan with your creditor. Don't wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector.

Will debt management problems seriously affect my credit rating?

Of course they can. Debt management problems not only affect your credit rating but can also hurt your ability to borrow money for a car, a home, and other future purchases. Creditors rely heavily on your credit history, so make sure that you are making your payments on time and that you make sure your credit report is accurate.

Should I be weary of "interest free" purchases?

Over the holidays consumers are inundated with "No Interest, No Payment" deals. The ads often promise interest free and no payments for six, 12 or even 24-months. For the most part, these are great deals that consumers can take advantage of. However, be aware, if you do not pay off the full price of the purchase within that time period, you can be charged interest on the entire purchase amount dating back to the purchase date, even if you have paid off most of the balance. Make sure you read the fine print of your agreement before buying anything. Also, do not wait until the end of the grace period because it may be difficult to come up with the full payment all at once.

What if I can't pay my bills and I'm being contacted by debt collectors?

Consumers, even those in debt, have rights and protections. The following debt collection practices are illegal under Pennsylvania's Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act:

* Contacting you at unusual times or places.

* Contacting you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

* Contacting you at work (if the debt collector is aware your employer does not allow such contact).

* Contacting you when the debt collector is aware you are represented by an attorney.

* Debt collectors may not make false implications of government affiliation.

* Debt collectors may not assert false threats of legal action or legal status.

* Debt collectors may not falsely imply that you committed a crime.

* Debt collectors may not deposit a postdated check prematurely.

Debt collectors and third party communications:

* Debt collectors may only contact third parties to ascertain your location or whereabouts.

* Debt collectors may not reveal to third parties that you owe debt.

Debt collectors may not harass you, or third parties in connection with collecting a debt:

* Debt collectors may not use threats of violence or harm, profane or obscene language.

* Debt collectors may not repeatedly use the telephone to annoy you.

* Debt collectors may not publish a list of debtors (except lists sent to credit bureaus).

If you feel a debt collector has violated the law, you should also take steps to document such behavior and file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General by calling 1-800-441-2555 or file electronically by visiting www.attorneygeneral.gov.

Corbett is Pennsylvania's attorney general.

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