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After the 2008 financial crisis, America's love affair with credit cards cooled a bit. The percentage of U.S. households carrying a credit card balance fell from 46% in 2007 to 39.6% in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances.

But many card issuers say sales are on the rise again. If holiday spending grew even modestly, as predicted, that means more people may face unpleasant credit card bills in January than in recent years.

If you're one of those who binged, here's how to cope:

First, a reality check

Most people can bail themselves out after a holiday spending spree. If you're already swamped with debt, though, it might be time to launch a life raft instead.

Here's how to tell if you're in too deep. Make a list of all your consumer debts, including credit card balances, personal loans and medical bills. Use a debt payoff calculator (find one on Bing)  to figure out how much per month you would need to pay on each bill, at its current interest rate, to have it paid off within five years. Why five years? Because that's generally how long a bankruptcy court would expect you to pay on such debts before forgiving the balance. Then, add all those monthly payments together.

Can you swing that total payment, or even more? If not, it's time to get help. Make appointments with a legitimate credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and an experienced bankruptcy attorney (the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys makes referrals) to be advised of your options.

Stop shopping

You'll have plenty of temptations. You may want to get yourself that gift no one else got you or take advantage of after-holiday sales. Resist. Unsubscribe from deal sites and newsletters, and toss catalogs into the trash unread. Taking a break from shopping for a month or two will leave you with a lot more cash to pay down your debt. Don't worry -- there will be plenty of sales later.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Raise cash fast

Return unwanted holiday gifts right away. Some stores will give you only their current, often discounted, price when you make a return. So head to the customer service counter while you can still get top dollar. If you can't get cash back, you'll probably still be able to receive store credit to use for future purchases. And if you've got gift cards galore, give yourself the gift of getting out of debt faster by selling them for cash on sites such as Plastic Jungle or Cardpool.

It's also a good idea to sell the stuff you don't want or need. Winter isn't a great time for yard sales in most of the country, so sell unneeded goods online at Craigslist, eBay or through used clothing sites such as Threadflip, Poshmark or Tradesy. If you have good quality, still-in-style clothing and shoes, you may be able to sell them to higher-end used clothing stores such as Buffalo Exchange.

One more option to help you sprout some green: a temporary second job or a side business. Check out TaskRabbit or ChoreMart to connect to those who want your services.

Chop expenses

Now's the time to eat in, drop the landline and cut the TV cord. You don't have to do without forever -- just long enough to settle those bills. MSN's Smart Spending blog is full of great ideas for reducing costs. Also, check out The Dollar Stretcher, one of the oldest online frugality sites for a deep library of articles, resources and tips.

Shoot for lower interest rates

If you have excellent credit scores (FICO of 750 or above), you may qualify for credit cards with lower interest rates, or at least a low-rate balance-transfer offer. The Citi Simplicity card has an 18-month, 0% offer on both purchases and transfers with no annual fee and a "lower than usual" 3% transfer fee, according to NerdWallet, which picked the Simplicity card as one of the best current offers. Another NerdWallet pick: the Chase Slate card, which has no balance transfer fee and offers 0% interest for 15 months.

Don't forget to check with your credit union to see if you can get a personal loan at a lower rate than your credit cards to help pay off some (or all) of your debt. Personal loans typically have fixed rates and a three-year term.

Avoid these traps

No matter how desperate you are to pay the bills, don't:

  • Raid your retirement funds.
  • Take out a payday or car title loan.
  • Prioritize credit card bills over necessities, such as paying the rent and keeping the lights on.

Make a plan for next year

Once you've paid off your holiday debt, start saving for next year. People who pay cash for their holiday needs will tell you there's nothing like the feeling of satisfaction that comes from a debt-free start to the year.

Carrie Bisnett of Albion, N.Y., said she paid for Christmas 2012 without using a single credit card.

"There are fewer gifts under the tree," Bisnett said, "but no surprises in January."

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Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

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