Wishing you a debt-free New Year! Duncan [South Belfast News]

I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

As a volunteer in an advice agency, I would also like to wish you a debt-free New Year. Don’t let debt turkeys come home to roost!

Every year, after everyone has recovered from Christmas, the credit card bills land on the doormat. Many people are shocked to see how much Christmas has cost, and will cost in mounting bills, as interest increases month after month. It is too easy to use credit cards to pay off other credit cards, leading to spiralling rates of interest, which you can never hope to pay off.

As you dash round the shops buying presents, remember that credit and store cards can be very costly options to cash.

Everyone wants their children and family to have the best for Christmas, but there is a limit to everyone’s budget and no one can afford to ignore when they are overspending and running up massive debts.

It is just too easy for vulnerable people, on benefit or low incomes, take up tempting offers of credit, especially at Christmas. They do this without realising that they will be in debt for the rest of their lives.

I welcome the news that some credit card companies — Abbey, Egg, Barclays and Co-op — will check whether customers are making the minimum payment, or taking cash out, or whether they are making payments in full.

The card lenders will watch how people use their cards, and warn them if it looks like they’re getting into difficulties.

Barclaycard, for example, says it will contact customers in trouble to suggest a repayment plan, or suggest a conversation with a debt advisor.

It is a pity more credit card, store card and loan companies do not care more about trapping consumers in a lifetime of debt.

After Christmas, don’t throw your bills in a pile and ignore them in the hope that they will go away. Pay for essentials, rent, electricity and gas or oil, then if you do not have enough left to pay off your credit cards, explain your circumstances to the people you owe money too, don’t just stop paying.

Call into your local advice centre — such as Citizens Advice or Advice NI — for help in contacting creditors, and making your debt manageable. Don’t despair, help is out there.

Meanwhile, I know the real pressures placed upon parents to provide Christmas presents for their children. This is compounded by the relatively high level of children who live in poverty here. For example, a recent survey by the charity, Save the Children, estimates that 150,000 children in Northern Ireland — that’s 37% of all children here — live in poverty. Also, 21% of households here live on social security benefits, compared to 12% in England.

I and my party are working to get Government more focussed on child poverty in Northern Ireland. We’ve long campaigned for more childcare and early years education — such as more Sure Start places.

Meanwhile, for those of you who can — and that should be most of us — pick up an extra gift for those children less fortunate. You can drop it off at the likes of Co-op Travelcare and Nationwide Building Society. They’ll forward your presents. For example, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul and Barnardos are all involved in distributing such gifts.

Once again, I wish hope all readers will have a safe, stress free Christmas, and a Peaceful New Year.

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