Shoppers cast aside fears of recession and spent more this Christmas than any other year for more than a decade.

But much of the bonanza was paid for with credit cards and, if the spending boom continues, rising interest rates could spark major problems for people with overstretched finances.

JANUARY is a busy time of year for Emily Ballantyne, a specialist in money and debt at Brighton and Hove Citizens' Advice Bureau.

In the weeks following Christmas she often has a rush of business when credit card bills demand payments for festive extravagances the month before.

She said: "We always get a steep increase in people coming in to see us with debt problems after Christmas and we are bracing ourselves for a big influx this year after the particularly heavy spending last month."

The latest report by the Confederation of British Industry reported the fastest year-on-year sales growth in December since 1987.

Retail sales volumes in the first two weeks of last month grew substantially more than expected, with 65 per cent of retailers reporting volumes up.

Mark Froud, policy director at Sussex Enterprise, said stores across Sussex had enjoyed high sales throughout the Christmas period.

He said: "The reports we are getting back are of a spending boom across Sussex. This was good for the local economy as people did their bit to avoid the possibility of recession."

But there will be a price to pay for people who spent beyond their means. A personal disaster or redundancy could bring the Christmas turkey home to roost.

Debt work taken on by Ms Ballantyne in the past two years has increased by more than 30 per cent. Since her office in Surrey Street, Brighton, opened this week she has already seen five new clients.

She said: "It may have something to do with the fact the economy is fairly buoyant. People are quite confident and are spending money they haven't got."

The increase in consumer spending last month indicated a surge in the live-now, pay-tomorrow philosophy.

Ms Ballantyne said: "UntilSeptember 11, people were quite confident that if a crisis such as being made redundant did happen, they would be able to get another job.

"I wonder if people spent more this Christmas because of the war and possible recession. They want to make merry today because who knows what will happen tomorrow?

"We have people coming in who admit they spent £5,000 on Christmas even though they know they cannot afford such a sum. Some people will pay heavily at Christmas even though they cannot afford to pay their electricity bill.

"One father-of-three was heavily in debt but knew he would be getting thousands of pounds in redundancy pay. I suggested we work out a way of paying back his creditors but he insisted he would need half the money for Christmas.

"When people lose their jobs they feel they have let the family down. At Christmas they often want to make up for things and will spend a lot of money to make the children happy."

The Money Advice and Community Support Service, a charity based in Queen's Road, Brighton, also helps people in financial difficulties.

Manager Jackie King said: "I would imagine there are many people sitting round this time of year dreading their credit card bills coming in.

"Our clients tend to be on benefits or on a low income. Sometimes they will buy the best presents for their children perhaps as a way of compensating for the rest of the year when they have had to be very frugal. Unfortunately they often get themselves into financial difficulties by splashing out at Christmas. People often spend now and will worry about the consequences later especially as credit is so easy to get nowadays."

Shoppers were returning to the January sales this weekend with a warning ringing in their ears from Bank of England Governor Sir Edward George that interest rates might have to be raised to moderate consumer demand.

But Sussex Enterprise remains upbeat about the implications of economic growth in the local economy.

Mr Froud predicted interest rates would increase by only 0.5 per cent and that any rise would not come until later in the year.

He said: "We forecast the Sussex economy will grow by around two per cent which is similar to last year. We expect growth to be quite slow in the first few months to account for the Christmas boom but things will speed up as the year progresses.

"We are nowhere near the boom and bust situation of 1989 when people bought houses and things to put in houses and then the chancellor put rates up by 15 per cent.

"We would have to have Christmas-level spending every day for five months running to get near that situation."