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Charge it. Credit card use is on the increase this holiday season, but that doesn't necessarily mean consumers are going deeper into debt.

Most consumers surveyed by America's Research Group before Thanksgiving said they would pay their bills immediately.

"More people are paying in cash and those people using credit cards are using them very judiciously," said Brian Kardon, director, Braxton Associates, a Boston consultancy. "They don't want to wake up in January with a real headache."

"The attitude of the public toward electing conservatives is the same way they're going to shop and pay for Christmas presents this year," said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group, Charleston, S.C.

Overall, bankcard balances were up 12.38% in the third quarter, less than total spending volume, said Robert McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp., Frederick, Md. In the 1980s, volume charged and outstanding balances were up 20% to 25%.

The jump indicates predictions of a strong holiday retail season were on the money. Another contributing factor is increased acceptance of credit cards in non-traditional locations, like grocery stores. And credit card marketers are using lures like frequent-flier miles and rebates on new car purchases to get cardholders to charge more often.

Visa USA authorized $1 billion in credit and debit transactions on Friday, Nov. 25, alone-a 25% jump from the day after Thanksgiving in 1993. For the Friday-Saturday period, Visa authorized $1.9 billion, a 24.4% increase.

MasterCard reported $747.8 million for Friday, a 37.6% gain, and $1.72 billion for Friday through Sunday, up 34.8%.

Visa is running a new Visa Rewards campaign from BBDO Worldwide, New York, counting 10% of all purchases toward points for vacations and, later, other retail purchases.

MasterCard is reprising its 4-year-old MasterValues coupon promotion that offers discounts from selected retail and catalog merchants, in ads by Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York.

American Express, for the second year, is using Charge Against Hunger cause-marketing promotion from Ogilvy & Mather, New York.

Discover again has its Big Payback sweepstakes, offering a $1 million prize. DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, created supporting ads and a direct mail piece with a voice chip inviting people to sign up for the card.

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