Several people have told me that they have already seen artificial trees and other Christmas items in the stores, and we are not talking about just The Christmas Shop. They thought the middle of August was too early for that, but with the brick and mortar stores, like Macy’s, continuing to suffer as more people buy things online, it may be more about survival than just marketing. Heck, I purchased five things online in the last few weeks — Eagle cycling jerseys and Captain America luggage.

Of course you can buy Christmas things anytime online, including now, and there are plenty of articles online to help you with your Christmas shopping, like the Best Christmas Gift Ideas for Holiday 2017 on bestproducts.com. Some of my favorite categories: THESE SERIOUSLY COOL SOCKS FOR MEN ARE TOO FUNNY AND OH SO STYLISH; 25 MUST-HAVE ITEMS TO SPOIL YOUR PETS (in case they weren't spoiled enough already), and 34 QUIRKY GIFT IDEAS FOR YOUR CLOSEST FRIENDS.

For me, I think that I will try to at least get past Labor Day before I start to think about Christmas, but, then, I do look for bargains all year long.

In the last column I promised to discuss consumer bankruptcy, because that came up a lot with the counselors at the Veterans Outreach Center. It seems that many people still believe that filing bankruptcy is a “quick and easy” way out of their financial problems. It may be that friends or family with financial problems have said that to you in the past.

Before we get into a very general discussion of personal bankruptcy, here are a few interesting facts and thoughts. First, personal bankruptcy filings dropped 50 percent between 2010 (1,536,799), during the great recession, and 2016 (770,846), when the economy was clearly improving. During that time, the filings dropped every year.

Second, as I have expressed in the past, there is no definitive reason for the decreased filings, but here are some possibilities. The Affordable Care Act, with its expanded health care coverage, may have eliminated the need for many “medical bankruptcies,” which some believed were a major cause of bankruptcy. Another possibility is that after the 2005 revisions to the Bankruptcy Code, there has been less attorney
advertising, and the costs to file attorney’s fees and filing fees have increased. Also, after, and as a result of, the great recession, credit standards increased, so there has been less “easy credit” available to many who could get it before the recession, but never were really able to afford it. Finally, consumers became more careful of their spending because of the effects of the recession.

Third, and finally, some professionals are predicting that filings may increase in 2017, and there is some evidence of that in the interim statistics. Three things form the basis for those predictions. The Federal Reserve is increasing interest rates, which, as we have discussed, will increase interest rates for credit card accounts. Also, credit card debt is at an all-time high, and the number of car loans is increasing, but so are the car loan defaults. At the end of 2016, more than 6 million Americans were at least 90 days late on their car loan repayments.

As for filing bankruptcy, it may or may not be necessary or, advisable, for any given individual, and even if it is advisable, the timing of a filing can be important. For those reasons, I like to see anyone thinking about filing to first go to a credit counselor to confirm not only that bankruptcy is necessary or advisable, but, also, to do a budget and have a discussion about life after bankruptcy.

In order to file now, you have to take some credit counseling, but I am looking for a serious effort. Many people filing for bankruptcy take an online course, but I wonder what they really get out of it.

In my view, if an individual has good personal finance skills and habits, but had a genuine life-changing catastrophic event, like a serious uninsured medical problem, a horrible and expensive divorce, or an honestly-run failed business, this may be less important. However, if they have just been a classic overspender, planning for life after a bankruptcy is critical. When I left the Bench, we had a 10 percent recidivism (re-filers) rate in this region. Some, but not all, debtors just go back to their bad financial habits. It is also important to know that any subsequent filing is carefully scrutinized by the Bankruptcy System.

The social policy behind bankruptcy is to give the “honest, but unfortunate, debtor a fresh start.” For many, that will require better financial knowledge, motivation, skills, tactics, techniques, and habits, so realizing that before filing bankruptcy is critical — it is not ”a quick and easy fix.”

If after some serious credit counseling, it is determined that working your way out of your financial problems is not possible, or advisable, a bankruptcy attorney is necessary, and a good one will also work with you on life after bankruptcy.

Next time we will look more at a consumer bankruptcy, including non-dischargeable debts, like most student loan debt; Chapter 7 straight bankruptcy versus a Chapter 13 repayment plan; and exempt property, like a qualified retirement account.

John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program. Find his previous weekly columns at http://www.mpnnow.com/search?text=Ninfo or at http://www.monroecopost.com/search?text=Ninfo