Don't try to impress me or to get your name on the "nice" side of Santa's ledger. Just answer this question honestly. If you had an extra $500, would you:

Pay down debt?

Buy someone a present?

Buy yourself something?

In a recent poll conducted by credit counselors, most people said they'd pay down debt.

I don't believe that. It's just talk. Because the numbers show that South Floridians are buried under a mountain of debt.

Here's how high that mountain is, courtesy of Credit Karma, which looked at 1,150 consumer credit reports from TransUnion, one of the three major credit bureaus.

For South Florida, the average consumer in October had:

$7,547 in credit card debt.

$220,478 in home mortgage loans.

$14,843 in auto loans.

Plus, $29,260 in student loans on average for those who have them.

And, $71,372 in home equity debt on average for those who have that.

The total debt mountain, with home equity and student loan debt thrown in, is $343,500.

The national average, Credit Karma says, was $297,130.

If you find yourself intimidated by such a mountain, here's how to begin climbing your way out of debt.

First, sort it out. If the unsecured debts - credit cards primarily - are starting to top about 10 percent of your monthly take-home income, Certified Financial Planner Steve Pomeranz of Steven L. Pomeranz Financial Management in Boca Raton, Fla., says that's high and you need to start paying it off. Just look at it objectively and see what it's doing to your life. "At what point are you giving up so many other things because most of your money is going to pay off your credit cards?" he asks.

Next, set a date. Decide how long you are going to be in this debt. That puts you in charge of the payment schedule. You can figure out what sort of payment you could afford if you chose to pay this debt off in three year or five years or longer. The Debt Zapper calculator at is a great tool for this.

Then, set your number. This is what you will pay toward your debt no matter what. Certified Financial Planner Johanna McMichael of Fusco Financial Services in Wilton Manors says some of her clients set their goals on how much money they're going to save each year and they do it - even if it means skipping vacations in lean years.

Don't get fussy about how you do it. Sort out the debt by highest interest rate and pay that off first. Or, pay off the lowest balance first, then roll that payment amount into the next smallest debt. If you want to try one method then the other, go ahead.

If it takes some kind of force for you to do this, use force. An automatic debiting arrangement will make it harder for you to cut back on your payments. You can also try a monthly reminder in your email or a forced savings tool such as some banks offer.

Next, reward yourself. You made a start. You're doing what you should. If you take a small reward now, it will help you to go through it to the end.

Finally, make a budget plan to avoid debt in the future. This is the step most people do first when attacking debt. But I think debt is about not planning well. Cars break down, things wear out, needs change. Make a budget for what you spend now – and then some for unanticipated expenses. It's called an emergency fund. If you build one, you won't get buried again anytime soon.

Harriet Johnson Brackey:

(c) 2009, Sun Sentinel

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.