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Debt’s downward spiral

Ben ran up $30,000 in credit card debt “mostly buying stuff I thought I needed,” and his marriage was crumbling around him before he decided he was no longer playing a game.

Alice is a single mother of three who “used being a women and a single parent as an excuse for getting in debt” when she lived paycheck to paycheck.

Sue always “hated being in debt,” but that didn’t stop her from accumulating $4,000 in costs she couldn’t repay.



Mike couldn’t figure out how to balance the financial demands of his business with his personal needs. “I was out of touch with what my real needs are,” he said.

All are members of the Grass Valley chapter of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. The group helps people recover from “compulsive debting” and lead happier, healthier lives.




They have a lot of company in their struggle to get consumer debt under control. Half of America’s 104 million households have an average of $10,000 in credit card debt, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Credit card debt totals $600 billion, and consumers paid $15 billion in credit card fees and $60 billion in interest last year to finance the debt, according to CFA.

Total consumer credit now stands at a record $1.7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, and was growing at an annual rate of 6.5 percent in January.

While many of those debtors got in trouble trying to keep up with the Joneses, the Debtors Anonymous members trace their problems to a compulsion they were unable to control. In exchange for their candor, The Union agreed not to use their real names.

Ben, an educator who lives in Nevada City, dug himself out of debt several times in the past until the latest episode threatened his marriage.

“I now know I’ve been a debtor all my life,” he said. “I bailed out in the past, then started over again. This cycle, it’s do or die. It’s no longer a game.”

Ben had a low opinion of 12-step programs before entering Debtors Anonymous, believing people should be able to solve their problems by themselves.

But he’s changed his mind after 4 years in the program, giving much of the credit to the group’s weekly meeting at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. “You can BS yourself, but (the other members) call you on it,” Ben said.

He cut up his six credit cards and has devoted four years to paying off his debts. “I’m to a point now where I’ve reconciled with the credit card companies. I don’t even have an oil company card now.”

Members begin their “recovery from compulsive debting” by keeping detailed records of their expenses and income – a process most find illuminating.

Along with attending the meetings, members are encouraged to read the Debtors Anonymous literature and start implementing the 12 steps that lead to recovery.

After 30 to 45 days in the program, a new member is teamed with two long-term members for a pressure relief meeting, where they review the new member’s situation and develop a spending plan and an action plan.

Alice, who works in administration in Grass Valley, said the process “gave her the confidence that I can do better … It’s made me more financially responsible. I’ve developed the feeling that I deserve to have a better life.”

Before entering the program 21Ú2 years ago, Alice managed to accumulate $7,000 in debt on income of less than $20,000 a year.

“I was living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “Each paycheck went to paying off cash advances and money I had borrowed until the next paycheck.”

The stress impacted her children, now teenagers. “There was a lot of bickering over money – when to buy a kid a pair of pants or a pair of shoes, or going on vacation,” she said. “We could hardly afford to go on any vacations.”

Since entering the program, Alice has paid off $5,000 of her debt and landed a higher paying job that she believes lets her apply all of her skills.

“I went from being a struggling retail clerk working part time to working full time with benefits in administration,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I have medical insurance.”

A homemaker and part-time college student who lives in Smartville, Sue believes she had to overcome a compulsion to solve her money problems.

“We all need money; we all need fun,” she said. “But money can become a drug. It’s not about money. It’s about the compulsion.”

Sue said that while she hates being in debt, she has struggled with the problem since she was young. Her problems peaked when she sold an expensive car at a loss, borrowed money from her parents she couldn’t repay, and found herself $4,000 in debt.

The spending plan that Debtors Anonymous helped her develop gave Sue a clear understanding of where her money was going and how to manage it. She has wiped out her debt, purchased a home, and is driving a car she can afford.

“It feels really good not to owe that debt,” she said. “I’m also taking better care of myself. I’m finding balance in my life.”

Mike’s compulsion came from assiduously paying his business bills, to the point where he was depriving himself. “I was always paid last,” he said. “I was not valuing myself.”

Debtors Anonymous helped him rebalance his life through a process of accepting his bad habits and letting them go at the same time. “Twelve-step programs are about becoming conscious of compulsive behavior,” Mike said.

Perhaps Sue summed it up best when she said: “You don’t have to go all the way to the bottom of the elevator to benefit from Debtors Anonymous.”

Do you need help?

The 12 signs of a compulsive debtor:

1. Being unclear about your financial situation: Not knowing account balances, monthly expenses, loan interest rates, fees, fines, or contractual obligations.

2. Frequently “borrowing” items such as books, pens, or small amounts of money from friends or others, and failing to return them.

3. Poor saving habits: Not planning for taxes, retirement or other non-recurring but predictable items, and then feeling surprised when they come due; a “live for today, don’t worry about tomorrow” attitude.

4. Compulsive shopping: Being unable to pass up a “good deal;” making impulsive purchases; leaving price tags on clothes so they can be returned; not using items you’ve purchased.

5. Difficulty in meeting basic personal or financial obligations, and/or an inordinate sense of accomplishment when such obligations are met.

6. A different feeling when buying things on credit than when paying cash, a feeling of being in the club, of being accepted, of being grown up.

7. Living in chaos and drama around money: Using one credit card to pay another; bouncing checks; always having a financial crisis to deal with.

8. A tendency to live on the edge: Living paycheck to paycheck; taking risks with health and car insurance coverage; writing checks hoping money will appear to cover them.

9. Unwarranted inhibition and embarrassment in what should be a normal discussion of money.

10. Overworking or underearning: Working extra hours to earn money to pay creditors; using time inefficiently; taking jobs below your skill and education level.

11. An unwillingness to care for and value yourself: Living in self-imposed deprivation; denying your basic needs in order to pay your creditors.

12. A feeling or hope that someone will take care of you if necessary, so that you won’t really get into serious financial trouble, that there will always be someone you can turn to.

Source: Debtors Anonymous


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