Rising credit card debt may dampen holiday budgets

Credit card
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Even before the holiday shopping season is in full swing, shoppers have set themselves up for tight budgets and a New Year's debt headache.

Credit card debt is again on the rise. Consumers paid off $32.5 billion in debt during the first quarter, but charged $28.2 billion in the second—the largest buildup in six years, according to a CardHub.com study released Thursday.

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"We all knew that there was pent-up desire for consumers to begin spending againwe just didn't know when," said Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Apparently that answer is upon us."

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That spending boost puts the average household's credit card debts at $6,802, up from $6,682 in the first quarter of this year. By the end of the year, the average amount owed is likely to top $7,000.

"It's not yet an alarming level, but it is rapidly moving," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com. "Every quarter, things are worse."

Consumers aren't far off, debt-wise, from the average owed at the onset of the recession. "At $8,400 on a household level was where they broke down last time in terms of their ability to pay," he said. "With debt, everything is fine until all of a sudden, it's not."

Rising balances are particularly troubling ahead of the holiday shopping season. Last year, consumers spent $602.1 billion on Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, according to the National Retail Federation. Estimates have yet to be released for this year, but in 2013, the average household spent $730 on gifts, decorations and other holiday purchases.

"It's a really bad time of year to see that your debt obligations are increasing," Cunningham said. "Adding new debt on top of old is never a good idea, so people do need to be cautious."

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Now, before the sales push accelerates, is an ideal time to do a financial checkup. Gauging current debts can help determine how much you can reasonably put toward a holiday budget. Ideally, settle on a figure that allows you to pay off holiday bills in full and continue paying down any current debts, she said.

Look for ways to stretch your budget. Redeeming loyalty program points for store gift certificates is often a great value compared with trading them for merchandise or even cash. Sites like Raise.com and CardPool.com also sell secondhand cards for less than face value.

Consumers who got a tax refund in April, or have since had a big life change like getting married or having a baby, can benefit from asking their employer to change the tax withholding on Form W-4. That will mean more in your paycheck now, and less of a federal tax refund (if any) come next year, Cunningham said.

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—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant