There's no better time of year than Christmas to check out the shops and stores for seasonal goodies. Outlets have been busy building up for a boom time, but it could also lead to bankruptcy for families caught up in the debt spiral. CLAIRE LANE reports.
THE pressure is greater than ever for parents to buy their 'little darlings' the most expensive toys in the shops this Christmas.
Halton residents are being caught up in the yearly shopping frenzy as Christmas decorations light up the shops - and their beloved children hand over their top 10 wish list of must-have presents.
Giving the big build-up even more of an impact, youngsters are gathering apace outside Santa's grotto in the main shopping square at Halton Lea in Runcorn to find out what gifts and delights lie in store.
But financial experts are warning mums and dads not to get too carried away with the festive fever, as during this time of year families are at a heightened risk of getting into record amounts of debt.
According to two reports published this month, the state of the nation's debts look set to soar during the next three months - and people are being told now is the ideal time to prevent it happening.
The CPP group, which offers insurance services and debt management, says there has been a 65% surge in the number of households that fear they won't be able to pay off their bills between now and February.
It also reveals it is not just the young who struggle with debts, as elderly people are equally at risk of frittering away money and spending outside their target budget.
Shock research carried out by equity release specialist Economic Lifestyle also shows that more than two million people aged over 65 have debts, adding up to a total of £8.4 billion, with as many as one million pensioners owing an average of £1,000 on their credit cards.
However, for those who find they have over-spent and eaten a big chunk into their over-drafts, it is important to note that help is on hand.
Staff at Halton's Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) are based at Grosvenor House in Runcorn and Lugsdale Road in Widnes, and are equipped to resolve people's money troubles and other problems, including legal queries by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers.
So far this year Halton's CAB has dealt with almost £2m of debt, the vast majority of which has been unsecured loans built up through credit cards or catalogue debts.
The issue of debt currently takes up about 35% of all the annual work carried out by the CAB.
Hitesh Patel, the CAB manager at Halton, said: 'From July to September we were asked to help sort out £1.3m of debt.
'This is a massive 92% jump when compared to the previous three months.
'If interest rates continue to rise then this problem is only going to get worse.
'If you do run into debt, don't ignore them and hope they'll go away - they won't.'
The danger of borrowing money this Christmas can be highlighted by the actions of a Southport couple, who took out a loan which landed them with a £384,000 debt.
Tony and Michelle Meadows said they borrowed just £5,750 in 1989 to make some basic improvements on their house, but after they struggled to meet their repayments the debt spiralled to 67 times its original size.
This happened after the couple paid off £25,000 of the loan and at one stage they risked losing everything they owned, including their home.
The case was finally resolved in a landmark court ruling when the judge decided to wipe the couple clear of their debts - believing the credit-rating to be extortionate.
However, many people should be warned they might not be as fortunate as the Meadows if temptation gets the better of them and over-spending surges them into debt this Christmas.
Despite the implication of the court ruling, people still face repossession orders if they fail to meet repayments on their loans or credit agreements.
If the loan is 'secured' against the property, people face losing their homes.
Despite debt being at the fore-front of most people's minds at Christmas, it is an issue that starts becoming a problem as early as the summer.
When hefty winter bills arrive in February, it's during this time that many people start to realise that they haven't accommodated for them within their budget.
Staff at the CAB are advising shoppers to put money aside and leave their credit cards at home.
It is also important to place bills as the priority, with mortgage, rent, gas, electricity and Council Tax at the top of the list.