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Today’s paper reports that credit card trouble is on the rise as folks who took out bigger mortgages than they were able to pay are discovering that they can’t pay for all the stuff they charged on credit cards, either. Both delinquencies and defaults are increasing at a rapid rate.

On the one hand, it’s hard to feel sorry for credit card companies that have to write off bad debts, because they actively pursue more debtors. Companies constantly send out “pre-approved” credit offers without regard to whether the recipient has the means (or the mentality) to handle a card responsibly.

As with the the troubled “sub-prime” mortgage market, the card companies offer low teaser rates on interest that encourage cardholders to borrow more money, but those who aren’t savvy enough to limit their spending to what they can pay off before the teaser rates expire get stuck with higher and higher rates — some as high as 30 percent.

The problem is not just with greedy loan companies, however, but with greedy borrowers who are so devoted to our consumerist culture that they feel it imperative to have more house and more stuff than they can possibly need for any purpose other than keeping up with their neighbors. Many of the people who are deepest in debt have above average incomes — but also above average greed.

Sadly, what our culture has done to Christmas is a part of the problem. We think it’s not Christmas if we don’t give (or receive) enormously expensive Christmas gifts, many of which wind up on credit cards that we know can’t be repaid at the end of the month.

At our house, we haven’t stopped giving gifts entirely (we’re not quite that bah-humbuggy), but we have reduced them. We have tacit agreements with friends who used to exchange gifts that we’ll forgo gifts and contribute to charity instead. Jan and I put a dollar limit on how much we can spend on each other, and we refuse to give in to the notion that children’s egos will suffer irreparably if they don’t get everything they want.

Whether Christmas or not, we limit ourselves to one active credit card each, and use them only for convenience, not as our personal loan officer. If we can’t pay something off by the end of the month, we don’t buy it.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to outdo one another or to measure love by the value of the gifts we give or receive, but it is not an unavoidable trap.

The Christmas gift that really matters was born in a stable. In his life and death, Jesus gave far more than any of us will ever deserve: that’s the only debt we should be unable to repay.

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