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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a retired credit executive with more than 40 years of experience dealing with people mired in credit card payments.

In your column on credit card debt, "Free and Clear in Florida" wrote: "... it is not uncommon for people to be caught up in the vicious cycle of paying for things on credit and being able to afford only the minimum monthly payments."

We have a large segment of the population who are economically illiterate consumers and do not understand how to spend intelligently, save wisely, invest, or do simple financial planning.

Yes, the credit card companies and other credit granters are partially to blame for encouraging people to live beyond their means, which creates financial stress for the debtors and their families. However, debtors who are poorly informed about money matters should shoulder some of the responsibility for their own difficulties.

The problem is of serious nationwide concern. An estimated 1.1 million individuals filed for bankruptcy in 1996 (up 27 percent from 1995)! Besides the emotional stress for these people, such losses become part of the cost of doing business and cause consumers to pay higher prices, higher interest rates and fees.

There's now talk about revamping and toughening the nation's bankruptcy code. In my opinion, such revisions are merely Band-Aid solutions. The flaw is not only in the bankruptcy code, but also in our failure to provide programs that give students a head start in understanding consumer economics (along with the rights and responsibilities of using credit). A financial education curriculum could help students develop financial skills and money sense -- knowledge that can help them use their money to the greatest benefit. Such a program would benefit both students and credit granters.

If school funds are not available now to finance a money management program, this would be a project worthy of support from public and corporate funds. -- BEN BERMAN, LOS ANGELES

DEAR MR. BERMAN: That's an excellent idea, and one whose time has come.

A wide-ranging group of federal government, business and civic organizations has banded together to advocate for the inclusion of personal financial education for kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculums. This new resource for educators is the Jump$tart Coalition. Its mission: to improve financial literacy among youth during the next decade.

The Jump$tart Coalition provides a clearinghouse for personal finance training materials. By sponsoring educational materials and lobbying for more financial education, Jump$tart hopes to increase education and awareness in four areas: income, money management, saving and investing, and spending. Its primary method of providing information will be the Internet, where it has launched a Web page at http://www.jumpstartcoalition.org, or call toll-free (888) 400-2233.

DEAR ABBY: I have some suggestions to add to your caveat regarding caution for people who choose to write to prison inmates: Never give an inmate your phone number or your home address. Use a post office box. Do not send gifts (although postage and small stationery for return letters is appropriate). Letters provide inmates with a sense of respect and caring they rarely receive outside or in prison. -- LEARNED THE HARD WAY, MONTGOMERY, ALA.

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