Debtors Anonymous is Not Just for Debtors

The following is a guest post from Susan B., who is sharing her journey as part of my “Stories of Recovery” series.  Susan is a financial sobriety evangelist. Her website, Getting Out from Going Under, provides guidance for people who are recovering from compulsive spending, shopping, and debting. Her recent book, “Getting Out from Going Under: Daily Reader for Compulsive Debtors and Spenders,” is filled with practical tips, inspiration, and a thought for each day to encourage and motivate you to stay on the path of recovery.

If you would like to be profiled in the “Stories of Recovery” series (you can be anonymous if desired), please connect with me to share your thoughts.

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My name is Susan B. and I’m a recovering shopaholic. More precisely, I’m recovering from an addiction to spending and buying that nearly killed me. I’m also a member of Debtors Anonymous (DA), a 12 step program (like Alcoholics Anonymous) for people who are out of control with money, with or without debt. And I haven’t had a shopping binge since April 25, 2009.

I wish that the program that saved my life wasn’t called “Debtors Anonymous” because far too many people whose lives have been decimated by a compulsion to shop think the program isn’t for them because they have no debt. (See DA’s 12 Signs of Compulsive Debting, which barely mentions debt!)

A Compulsion Fueled by Urgency

The fact is, a shopaholic is just a debtor who hasn’t run out of money yet. It’s not about how we get our fix with money, but about the fact that we feel compelled to spend to the detriment of our bank accounts, our relationships, our careers, and even our health.

My addiction was never to debting. For me, it was (and still is) an urgency, a compulsion, an obsession, to buy, that left me feeling that I would die, literally die, if I did not purchase whatever was in my laser focus immediately.

And, of course, after buying the wardrobe, shoes, purse, computer, gift, smartphone, car, house, etc. (fill in the blank), I would be satisfied for about 15 minutes before the thought of the next purchase popped into my head. And the cycle of obsession over that new purchase and the compulsion to buy it would begin again.

Not once have I ever experienced the ultimate “Ahhhhh,” a feeling of satisfaction that stayed with me for more than a brief period. It didn’t matter if it was a new lipstick or a complete wardrobe. That feeling of urgency and need gripped me like a vise squeezing tighter and tighter … over and over again.

We Can’t Always Have What We Want

For me, debting was just the means to an end, because I wasn’t about to let the fact that I didn’t have the money stop me as long as I had the credit. And, with or without the credit, nothing could keep me from spending my cash, which always seemed to burn a hole in my pocket.

In Debtors Anonymous, I learned that I had a spiritual sickness, one that deluded me into believing I could have anything I wanted when I wanted it while ignoring the grim reality of the aftermath of such thinking. In recovery, I learned that the obsession of the mind will pass if I don’t give into it by buying what I cannot afford. Because if I do give in, I will be struck by cravings too strong to resist that will ensure that I continue spending until I am literally spent.

How Debtors Anonymous Can Help

The DA program is comprised of twelve steps that taught me a new way of living, and a network of support that has been instrumental in keeping me sober with money one day at a time since 2009. The first step is an admission that we have hit bottom. The first half of Step 1 knocks me to my knees, confronting the truth head on: “I am powerless over debt(but I can just as easily say, “I am powerless over shopping”). The second half of that step deals the final blow, stating, “And my life has become unmanageable.” If you are a real shopaholic, you will know that this is true whether or not you have debt.

While Step 1 states the problem, Steps 2-12 teach us the solution. There is no one right way to work a DA recovery program. But there are tools, live and phone meetings, and a network of support to help you on your path. If you struggle with the compulsion to shop, it may be worth giving DA a try. There are live meetings across the world and dozens of phone meetings (and even online meetings, too). It is recommended that you attend six meetings to see if DA is for you. (The DA website has a helpful section called, “Is DA for You?”)

Living One Day at a Time in Recovery

As for me, I have paid off nearly $32,000 of the $34,000 of credit card debt I started out with in 2009 (despite my becoming disabled in 2010 and having my income slashed in half). For today, I live within my means and without incurring any new unsecured debt. Most importantly, when I am gripped by those old feelings of desperation, I now know how to handle them until they lift, without my giving into them. I am profoundly grateful that, one day at a time, I am no longer a slave to shopping.

A big thank you to Susan for sharing this wonderful story and excellent resources!  Learn more about Susan B. and her journey with Debtors Anonymous over at her website / blog, “Getting Out from Going Under.” 

11 thoughts on “Debtors Anonymous is Not Just for Debtors

  1. I never thought of myself as a shopaholic or debtor, but the feelings of compulsion in this post are eerily familar… Thank you for sharing this.

      • I just bought the book. I like the chapter discussing the differences between generosity and grandiosity. Food for thought, for sure.

  2. Wow, powerful stuff. I can totally relate to the 15 minutes of happiness. I am on a “no purchases for the month of February” attempt. So far, so good. Really, five days is a victory!

    • Wow, Lori! That is true willingness to face the demons within. I actually did this for three months once. In DA, they call it a spending moratorium. I didn’t spend any discretionary money during that time. It was an amazing lesson to sit through the agonizing pain and to see it pass. Five days is, indeed, a victory! For me, even one day not being a slave to spending is a victory. Congratulations! Susan B.

  3. I have been a compulsive spender for the past 30 years. Even though logically I know what I am doing is hurting myself, I have been unable to stop permanently. I am no longer in debt but I do not feel like I am under good control. I have gone through periods of many months when I have been able to focus on saving and control my spending but last year I retired and I think the fear, insecurity and boredom of no longer having a job is pushing my buttons and making me spend out of a fear of not having enough. I feel insane – who spends because they are afraid of not having enough, thus causing the very problem they most fear? I went to a DA meeting years ago but felt out of place so I didn’t return, but I am going to order your book and see if I can get myself together through meditation, no credit cards and going on a 2 month shopping fast to break the cycle.

    • Hi Tara,

      Congratulations to being out of debt! I completely relate to spending more when I have less. Often, those were my worst binges. That’s when I really debted the most, of course, because not having cash couldn’t stop me. Yes, you really hit it on the head – my fear of not having enough threw me into a spending binge more times than I can remember.

      All those ideas you mention are wonderful. For me, having support was also essential. Even if you don’t go to DA, maybe you can find one or more people who can act as your support system. So you can make commitments daily, bookend, and call if you find yourself getting into trouble. Remember, DA is not the only path to recovery. It is just the one that worked for me, so I write about it.

      There is no question that meditation is a vital component in my being sober with money. I learned years ago that sitting in silence despite the chatter in my brain that often makes me want to run screaming out of the room is a great practice to learn how to face the obsession and compulsion to spend that I might confront the rest of the day.

      If you can commit one day at a time to a daily 30 minute practice of sitting in silence, it might be very helpful. Just watching your breath or repeating a word or phrase is all it takes. When I learned that the practice of meditation is really the practice of going back and forth between my thoughts and my anchor (e.g., watching the breath), I could relax instead of beat myself up for constantly thinking.

      I am definitely not a relaxed meditator :). But I just keep bringing my thoughts back to my breath. And it has really been instrumental in helping me learn that all feelings pass, teaching me that if I sit with the discomfort of wanting to buy insanely without giving into it, eventually, I will come to my senses again. And that has proven to be true time and time again for me.

      Remember, you don’t have to stop permanently. You just have to keep your commitment not to act out with money for 24 hours no matter what you think or how you feel. When you feel the compulsion rising, that is the moment to make a phone call or do something else that brings you joy.

      With more time on your hands, what a great opportunity to find new outlets for fun and creativity that are free or within your means. The library is a great source of free, fun programs for adults. And I have learned more arts and crafts activities from YouTube than you can imagine! After becoming disabled in 2010, I was urged to explore artistic expression despite my thinking I had no talent at all. Since then, I have learned how to do intricate doodles that filled me with joy for many hours, yarn crafts, and many others. With the Internet such a fabulous free source of inspiration and tutorials, what a great gift to have time to explore and play!

      Wishing you the best with your commitment.

      • I really appreciate the detailed and thoughtful responses you have given to the comments on this post, Susan, especially this one. I’m sure what you wrote was helpful to Tara and it was for me, too. It’s very hard to sit in silence and be with our thoughts, which is why so many of us resort to compulsive behaviors like overshopping. I’m impressed with your progress and your journey and I’m very grateful to you for posting on my blog!

  4. Hi Susan, I hardly ever comment but loved your post so I had to comment. I think with compulsive shopping it’s easy to get caught up in the symptoms and seek remedies that just address the shopping, which aren’t likely to work if the root lies deeper. I believe with any compulsive behaviour you have to get to the root, however painful that is. My husband is in a 12 step programme so I’ve seen first hand how powerful they are if you really put in the effort to work the steps. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mel. I totally agree. And you remind me that my recovery has enhanced my marriage greatly. Another remarkable by-product.

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