Sharon Stephenson joins a circle of compulsive over-spenders at a meeting of Debtors Anonymous.
We were flatmates, nine backpackers from all over the planet who’d washed up at a crumbling old house off the A40 in West London. Like the rest of us, Leon spent his days doing things he didn’t like for people who didn’t appreciate it. In his case, that involved standing on a cold factory floor next to Pakistani women who mostly ignored him. He did so without grumbling, or at least without grumbling in any language I could understand.
Everything he earned that wasn’t exchanged for food or rent was funnelled into the weekend: come clocking off time on a Friday, Leon would head to the West End to open his wallet to pubs and prostitutes.
I once asked if he’d ever considered saving his hard-earned wages and Leon looked at me as though I’d been at the gin. “There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says it’s better to be happy than rich,” he said. “Five days of the week, I’m miserable, but for two I am deliriously happy. Why would I want to lock my money away in a bank where I can’t enjoy it?”
His words leapfrogged over the years recently when I ran into a friend on Lambton Quay. Emily is tall and striking, her treacle-coloured hair like an exotic pet you want to reach out and stroke. But the day we meet she looks shrunken and sad, her eyes red. Over coffee, she tells me she’s been to her weekly Debtors Anonymous (DA) meeting, a self-help programme for compulsive over-spenders wanting to better manage their money.
Like most addicts, Emily’s reasons for getting into debt are complex. She doesn’t want to talk about it but admits DA has helped her dig her way out from “Debt Mountain”.
“It changed my life,” she says of the programme, which started in New York in 1976 and is now a global not-for-profit organisation that hosts more than 500 meetings in 25 countries each week.
As the name suggests, anonymity is a cornerstone of DA: attendees rarely use their real names and what goes on in meetings stays there. I’m not sure they’d welcome a journalist. But after a convoluted series of emails and phone calls, I finally connect with Penny, one of the founders of DA’s Wellington group. She asks attendees if they’d mind me tagging along and, to my surprise, they agree, as long as I don’t use their names and identifying circumstances.
The following week, on a winter evening when the cold feels like razor blades gouging my skin, I meet Penny at Wellington Central Library. “I’ll be the one wearing a red scarf,” she emails before our meeting. And so she is. She also has kind brown eyes and the sort of personality that makes you want to smile when you talk to her.
“Overspending is an impulse some people can’t control,” says Penny. “Ours is a culture that condones and even encourages materialism. Marketers tell you you’re worth it, that you deserve a treat, that buying something will make you feel better. And because you don’t want to miss out or not have the latest thing or look as good as you can, you buy, buy, buy.”
The challenge, she adds, is to break that impulse. “DA provides moral support as well as tools for people who have admitted they have trouble managing money and want to do something about it.”
Some arrive owing six figures, others no more than a few hundred dollars. The numbers don’t matter. It’s what debt has done to people’s lives – the misery, lack of control, depression and low self-esteem associated with overspending – that has brought them here.
Along with others in the alphabet soup of fellowships spawned by Alcoholics Anonymous – Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous – DA is based on the 12-step recovery programme, under which attendees agree to principles such as honesty, accountability, selflessness and a belief that “a power greater than us” can help. Members begin by recording everything they currently spend and working with others to develop a debt-repayment plan.
“We don’t use the word budget, because that implies a sense of deprivation, something you have to give up,” says Penny. “Instead, we work out how to get on top of the overspending because once you know what’s going on, you can begin to change it. And then we realistically look at the kind of life you want and how much that’s going to cost.”
As with AA, members have sponsors they can talk to whenever the urge to spend arises. “We call it bookending, where I’ll text my sponsor before I go into a shop and text her afterwards to tell her how much I spent. Being accountable for your behaviour can really help.”
Penny outlines the meeting rules: no questions, no giving advice, no judgment and no talking over anyone else. I am, however, allowed to take notes.
We shuffle into a small room on the ground floor of the library, all harsh strip lighting and office furniture about 30 years out of date. The turnout is low tonight, probably because of the weather. Instead of the usual 10 or so attendees, only four women have come to share parts of themselves. Most are middle-aged, all look like suburban soccer mums. It’s nothing like the addiction meetings depicted in movies: there’s no coffee station, no lectern and the room is freezing; I keep waiting for someone to turn up the heating but no one does.
Banners featuring the 12 steps are affixed to walls with bulldog clips. Leaflets with titles such as “Do You Think You Might Be a Compulsive Debtor?” and “Recovering from Compulsive Spending” sprawl across the table.
The attendees take it in turns to chair the meeting. Tonight it’s Sally’s turn. The attractive mother of two puts on her glasses and reads the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”). We all join in.
There’s an excerpt from the DA “bible”, A Currency of Hope, an American publication that attendees take turns reading from. In it, a woman describes hyperventilating in a changing room because she knows she can’t afford what she’s about to buy.
Sniggers of recognition ping around the room. “I’ve been that woman, not knowing how much money was in my account, but desperate for a quick fix,” says Kate of her overspending.
Shopping was always her Kryptonite, an escape from bad relationships and overwhelming debt. “Spending money meant I didn’t have to be alone with my feelings. When I shopped, I felt loved and admired. And when I spent money, I fooled myself into thinking I actually had money.”
The room relaxes as each woman shares her story. Some have been attending these meetings since they joined the programme six years ago; any embarrassment about bad decisions and rotten luck dissolved a long time ago.
Someone talks about buying a house on impulse, another of not having enough money for a pint of milk. A woman wearing a T-shirt of a band she’s too young to remember says she’s glad this group exists. “I was so angry with my husband yesterday, I spent $250 in a shop I don’t even like! And while I was walking the dog last night, I was on my phone buying stuff on Trade Me.
I really needed to come here tonight.”
By now, the hour is up. Members commit to an action plan for the coming week (staying away from shops is a popular one, as is de-cluttering, having a massage and talking to sponsors) before Sally closes the meeting. There’s laughter and small talk as banners are rolled up and coats struggled into.
“There’s something really authentic about one addict helping another,” one woman says to me as we leave. “DA is a very simple programme for very complicated people.”
Chaos, addiction, debt: Lilly knows them well. “They’re my long-term friends,” says the 53-year-old IT consultant.
We’re chatting a few days after the meeting and Lilly is describing how her life detoured into alcoholism, overeating, depression and debt.
In the beginning, there was her strict but loving family who immigrated to New Zealand from Europe, seeking a better life for their two children. “It was a very working-class existence and although we never went without, there was a lot of making something out of nothing,” say Lilly.
She found alcohol on a warm spring day when she was 13. “My family moved around a lot and I used drinking to help me fit in.”
For the next two decades, Lilly was a highly functioning alcoholic, completing architecture and arts degrees, holding down various jobs, flats and relationships. There wasn’t a rock bottom, but eventually a colleague called her out on her addiction and Lilly found her way to AA. “The first time I heard someone tell their story, it resonated with me. I was the classic victim, blaming everyone but myself. I was a brat who acted selfishly and behaved badly.”
She pushes wavy strands of hair out of her eyes and says she’s been sober for more than 15 years. But alcohol was soon replaced with other addictive behaviours. “They say addiction is looking for spiritual answers in flesh-based solutions,” she says, ticking off a laundry list of obsessions. “After alcohol came food, then spending, then hoarding.”
Having inherited her parents’ knack for crafting and upcycling, Lilly had always bought fabric and old furniture, intending to do it up. But with the alcohol gone, her spending kicked into overdrive. It resulted in a basement filled with broken furniture, cupboards overflowing with fabric and rooms littered with half-finished craft projects – and a credit-card debt of $15,000 to go with her student debt of $55,000.
At the same time, Lilly would save money by not switching on the heating and subsisting on beans and rice, then blow it all on a $300 dress or pair of shoes. “I wasn’t quite eating cat food but I was living like a crazy person.”
She found DA through a friend three years ago and credits the weekly meetings with helping her make inroads to paying off her student loan and accumulate modest retirement savings. The programme also taught her how to be kind to herself. “I’ve learnt to be comfortable with nice things, such as decent underwear and sheets, a fridge full of nutritious food and a warm, tidy house. It’s about living a life of prosperity, not deprivation.”
Had Lilly not found help, she believes she might not have survived. “I would have suicided a long time ago. Life has certainly looked pretty hopeless over the years and if I hadn’t found AA and DA, I wouldn’t be here today.”
No one really knows how many chronic over-spenders move among us, but it’s well documented that more and more of us are plunging deeper into debt. Figures released by Statistics New Zealand last year show more than half of New Zealanders over the age of 15 years were in debt in 2015 – owing an average of $79,000 per person. This debt included real estate (such as home mortgages) and education loans, as well as borrowing for consumer durables (typically cars, motorbikes, boats and household appliances).
Earlier this year, New Zealand’s household debt-to-income ratio hit a whopping 165 per cent, higher than before the global crisis hit in 2007. Most of that comprises housing debt, but we’re clearly not slackers when it comes to consumer spending: financial services research agency Canstar reported Kiwis spent more than $36 billion on their credit cards in 2016, with around 63 per cent of that spending ending up incurring interest.
But when does retail therapy or being a spendthrift tip over into compulsive debting? Researchers in the field have divided over-spenders into three groups. Manic-depressives, for example, may spend wildly during manic periods and appear to revel in it. Impulsive spenders also seem to get some pleasure from the habit. And while they may feel some remorse, that wears off and they’ll overspend again. Then there are the true compulsives, who don’t want to shop but are compelled to – and experience horrible “withdrawal” feelings if they don’t.
There’s no comparable New Zealand research but in the US, a 1995 study from the University of Minnesota showed that disordered shopping starts at an early age, with addicts often unable to recognise the full magnitude of the problem until a decade later. The study also found that the typical compulsive buyer was a university-educated woman in her 30s.
But the 61-year-old was an alcoholic and drug user before she started the Wellington DA chapter in 2011. “I was 46 when I finally made it to AA, so that’s a lot of time spent as a functioning alcoholic,” says Penny, who tells her story without anger or sadness. Her doctor suggested she try AA when she reported feeling “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.
Penny uses words like depression and low self-esteem to describe her pre-recovery life. “I made bad decisions and had violent and unhappy relationships. I always felt as though I wasn’t good enough.”
She was hardly on the wrong side of the economic tracks, but the higher Penny climbed in the publishing industry, the more she spent. “I’ve bought and sold five houses in my lifetime, including the last one where I really went over the top. I had to have the best of everything, the latest kitchen and all the shiny gadgets – and I don’t even cook!”
Penny says she’d go through periods of obsessively buying books. Then clothing, then household items. “I had so much shit. Just all this useless stuff I once thought was important.”
She always managed to pay off her credit card – but only just. “There were a few anxious months when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to. Plus, I was in my mid-50s and had no savings or retirement plan. I knew I didn’t have a healthy relationship with money because I’d look at other people and say, ‘How can they afford that when I can’t? Maybe I need to earn more money. How can I do that?’ It’s an exhausting way to live.”
When a friend mentioned having attended DA meetings in the UK, Penny buddied up with that friend to start the Wellington chapter. “I knew there was a need for it, that people would come. I certainly needed it!”
Penny, who’s “happily single”, says her life looks very different now. Earlier this year, she left the corporate world to start a couple of small businesses. She admits she’d never have had the confidence to do that before DA.
After many years of not being able to afford it, she’s also rediscovered the joy of travel, having recently spent six weeks in the Caribbean and, a few years ago, South America. “My aim is to eventually work as a digital nomad, travelling and working from my laptop.”
Penny is at pains to point out, though, that recovery is about progress, not perfection. “Just as I’m always an arm’s length from drinking again, so too I’m always in danger of compulsive debting. As with any recovery, it’s an ongoing process.”
Having long ago gotten rid of her credit cards, Penny admits to “having a splurge now and again”. But shopping no longer brings her the joy it once did. “I’ve become more aware of the compulsive behaviour and buying stupid amounts of crap just feels uncomfortable now. I don’t need it and I don’t want it and I wish I’d known that years ago...”
So you think you might be a compulsive debtor?
Most serious over-spenders answer yes to at least eight of the following questions.
1) Are your debts making your home life unhappy?
2) Does the pressure of your debts distract you from your daily work?
3) Are your debts affecting your reputation?
4) Do your debts cause you to think less of yourself?
5) Have you ever given false information in order to obtain credit?
6) Have you ever made unrealistic promises to your creditors?
7) Does the pressure of your debts make you careless of the welfare
of your family?
8) Do you ever fear that your employer, family or friends will learn
the extent of your total indebtedness?
9) When faced with a difficult financial situation, does the prospect
of borrowing give you an inordinate feeling of relief?
10) Does the pressure of your debts cause you to have
11) Has the pressure of your debts ever caused you to consider
12) Have you ever borrowed money without giving adequate consideration to the rate of interest you are required to pay?
13) Do you usually expect a negative response when you are subject
to a credit investigation?
14) Have you ever developed a strict regimen for paying off your debts,
only to break it under pressure?
15) Do you justify your debts by telling yourself that you are superior to “other” people, and when you get your “break” you’ll be out of debt?
* Source: Debtors Anonymous
This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.