Are you a candidate for Debtors Anonymous?

By Helen Fowler

It doesn't matter if you have money to burn or struggle to pay for necessities -- compulsive spending can be a problem for anyone, especially when credit cards are so easily accessible. There's even a medical name for overspending: oniomania.


But help is available. While some people are most comfortable with individual counselling, millions have found help through the free group Debtors Anonymous (DA). DA's power lies in the support problem debtors find in others who have lived through the same predicaments. The programme can help debtors repair credit damage by dealing with the underlying emotional issues of compulsive spending or under-earning.

Emotional underpinnings:
People with oniomania tend to spend money in an attempt to feel better about themselves. They may base emotions on the image they seek to project to other people, experiencing feelings of emptiness and unhappiness if they don't think they measure up.

Often, compulsive shoppers use spending to distract from discomfort, boredom, anxiety and depression. Splashing out new clothing, jewellery or gadgets can alter your body chemistry, giving a temporary high, even if you never use the new item again.

Alex, a Brighton-based member of DA, recalls how reliant she once was on shopping. (Part of the DA code is that members only use their first names when making public statements.) "I had a gold card," she says. "There was a lot of grandiosity in how I lived. It took me a while to be able to live without it."

Do you need debt help?
Questions to ask yourself
  • Are your debts making your home life unhappy?

  • Does the pressure of your debts distract you from your daily work?

  • Are your debts reflecting your reputation?

  • Do your debts cause you to think less of yourself?

  • Have you ever given false information in order to obtain credit?

  • Have you ever made unrealistic promises to your creditors?

  • Does the pressure of your debts make you careless of the welfare of your family?

  • Do you ever fear that your employer, family or friends will learn the extent of your total indebtedness?

  • When faced with a difficult financial situation, does the prospect of borrowing give you an inordinate feeling of relief?

  • Does the pressure of your debts cause you to have difficulty sleeping?

  • Has the pressure of your debts ever caused you to consider getting drunk?

  • Have you ever borrowed money without giving adequate consideration to the rate of interest you are required to pay?

  • Do you usually expect a negative response when you are subject to a credit investigation?

  • Have you ever developed a strict regiment for paying off debts, only to break it under pressure?

  • Do you justify your debts by telling yourself that you are superior to the "other" people, and when you get your "break" you'll be out of debt overnight?

12-step approach
DA bases its support around the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous, using a similar 12-step approach to help people get their lives back together. The Debtors Anonymous website gives some examples of questions -- also listed in the box on this page -- to ask yourself to figure out if you are a problem debtor. How you respond can help you decide if you are a candidate for the programme.

DA holds meetings across the country, and anyone with a debt problem is welcome to attend. The aim is to provide non-judgemental support, helping people out of the psychological prison created by debt and anxiety.

Taking the first all-important step of going to a meeting of Debtors' Anonymous can feel overwhelming to anyone with a spending problem, says Alex. Secrecy and shame surround compulsive debt. Often, sufferers attempt to hide their debt from even their partners out of guilt.

But hiding your problem can make matters worse, as it can make you feel isolated. "It's the secrecy that fuels [spending]," says Alex. As self-criticism grows, you may seek temporary relief by shopping, creating a vicious circle.

Practical steps forward
The DA fellowship helps debtors avoid feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of their problems by focusing on making progress one day at a time. DA veterans spend time with newcomers drawing up a budget. Members are encouraged to log everything they spend, so they can see (often for the first time) a realistic picture of outgoings.

Because people with compulsive spending disorders tend to hoard items they never use, DA instructs members to go through their belongings and weed out what they don't need. The process helps you see how much you already have, alleviating the need to acquire anything else. And you may be able to sell some items, and put the money toward your debt.

Finally, the programme supports you as you reach out to credit providers to make a repayment plan, even if you can only afford small amounts each month. It can take years to get both feet back on the ground, says Alex, but with enough patience and determination, it can be done.

See related: 'Retail therapy' not a myth -- we spend when emotional, Prioritising debt: Which bills are essential?

Published: 2 May 2014