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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Feature | Shopaholic: Once buried in debt, these shopping addicts are digging themselves out. Page 2
News & Columns

Feature | Shopaholic: Once buried in debt, these shopping addicts are digging themselves out. Page 2

By Carolyn Campbell
Posted // December 10,2008 -  

nHow many shoes do you need?
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Looking back on her years of struggle, Angela recalls that she and her husband had a big garage sale before they moved to an apartment. At the end of the day, a truckload of items remained, which they donated to Deseret Industries. “The pile of clothes, toys and books filled the whole truck and was higher than the cab,” Angela says. Later, when they moved again, the couple donated 22 garbage bags filled with perfectly good clothes to DI.

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When her marriage counselor said that Angela was fortunate her husband was willing to work with her on her shopping and overspending, Angela didn’t feel so lucky. “It felt like repression,” she recalls. “A lot of the things I did were an effort to just be myself and not be under his control. He was a compulsive pauper, and I was compulsive spender.”

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Still, she was nagged by the feeling she lacked control over her spending and finances. “I knew it was bad that I kept signing up for credit cards,” Angela says. She played a game with herself, a game that many compulsive spenders engage in. Angela would transfer her massive debt from one credit card to another, as pitches for 0-percent-interest cards came in the mail. Eventually, with her debt in the tens of thousands of dollars, credit card companies cut off her applications.

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“Every day, I woke up terrified,” Angela says. Making only a moderate income as a customer-service agent and with a skyrocketing debt level, she says, “I worried about how I could ever pay it off.”

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While UVU professor Workman pursued her doctoral degree at Utah State University, she met many people in Caitlin and Angela’s shoes at Debtors Anonymous (DA) group meetings. She researched the group and its members for two years in Salt Lake City, maintaining the required confidentiality of this 12-step addiction recovery program.

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DA (DebtorsAnonymous.org) is modeled on the much older Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other support groups for people with addictions. Participants “work” a 12-step plan that begins with acknowledgement that members are powerless over their addiction. They work with a sponsor who has had success in his or her own recovery. A DA sponsor supports the new member in finding order in life and in getting spending on track. Regular meeting attendance and talk therapy under the cloak of anonymity are vital ingredients of the program.

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Caitlin and Angela arrived at Debtors Anonymous through different paths. Angela read about the organization in a magazine story about couples struggling with credit-card debt. Caitlin’s friend had vaguely mentioned something about a 12-step organization relating to money. The single criteria for becoming a member of DA is “that you want to avoid incurring unsecured debt,” explains Angela. “Even if you are not already in debt, but are worried that you might be in the future, you can join.”

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After attending her first DA meeting in Salt Lake City, Caitlin began logging all her income and outgoing money. A huge amount of her debt was her growing finance charge on the cards. “I wondered how I had all that debt and nothing to show for it. I was $11,000 in debt and had nothing new.”

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A new member of DA learns how to keep careful records of all spending. After six meetings, the member is assigned to two other members who have at least 90 days of abstinence from incurring further debt. The three work together to create a spending plan.

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“They don’t call it a ‘budget,’ because that feels too restrictive,” Angela says. It’s like calling a nutrition and exercise plan a “diet.” Both words carry the baggage of punishment for people who already are battling problems of self-worth.

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The DA model sets up a reasonable spending plan with a realistic timetable for becoming debt-free. If a person gets a windfall—such as an inheritance or bonus—a DA sponsor will act as “pressure relief” in helping the member decide how to allocate it. “Usually you would put a third into savings, a third on debt and a third to spend however you want,” Angela says. “ Before DA, I would spend it all three times over before I ever got it.”

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