Money Issues - Compulsive Spending, Underearning and Debting

Alcoholism and addiction in general rarely affects our lives without affecting our pocketbooks.  Some of us spend money on our addiction and some of us just spend money.  The unmanageability of any addiction takes us away from reality, away from the pressures of life.  The compulsive debtor, spender or under-earning has issues around money.  If fact, who doesn’t.  Money may represent power, love, self worth, and connection.  We may overspend because we feel like we deserve it–not unlike the compulsive eater, drinker or sex addict who feels a sense of entitlement.  We may spend to celebrate.  We may spend because to cheer ourselves up.

 “Shopping therapy” may not be so therapeutic when it becomes habitual, unconscious and moving us away from a budget or spending plan.  Yes, I said it, “budget.”  What an ugly word.  I have yet to hear it said in a context where people feel good about it.  We typically feel that we would become a slave to the budget.  But the reality is that we become a slave to money and to our creditors if we don’t have a plan.  But let’s not call it a budget.  Let us call it a spending plan, which is the wording Debtors Anonymous (DA) uses. 

The Steps to Freedom from Compulsive Debting


Two Types of Addiction

There are two basic kinds of addictions — Process and Substance.


Substance addiction refers to alcoholism, drug abuse and prescription addiction.  It is using a foreign substance and putting it into one’s body either through ingestion, inhalation, intravenously or transdermal through the skin, i.e. fetanil patches.

Process addiction refers to behaviors that interact with our physiology where are mood is altered considerably and we become addicted to the adrenaline, the serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins and many other chemicals.  Process addictions include, compulsive overeating/undereating, vomiting, spending, gambling, working and sexing. One could argue that food is in both camps, because it has like a process and a substance we are ingesting.

How do we know if we have a problem with compulsive debting?

Signs of Compulsive Debting (taken from Debtors Anonymous)
. 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 and others, and failing to return them. 
3. Poor saving habits. Not planning for taxes, retirement or other not-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 financial or personal 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 contend 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 under-earning: 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.

If any of these signs seem to fit, you might benefit by looking into recovery from spending addiction.  Many of us have some of these traits, but the more you have, the more likely it is to be a problem.


Being unsure of where one stands brings financial instability, unpredictability and chaos.  But to the “compulsive debtor,” the vagueness spells relief.  The mail and bills remain unopened.  Borrowing more money brings a false sense of security.  Not knowing how little is coming in and how much is going out kind of feels good to the debtor as if they have such cash flow, they don’t need to worry.


The nature of any addiction is about numbness and escape.  When spending, debting, hording, or excessive frugality is extreme, it can move us away from our inner feelings.  It becomes a distraction.  We may spend when we are sad, mad or scared.  We may be afraid of what lies ahead, financially or otherwise.  We may be afraid of the financial mess and so we avoid it by more spending.  They only way we knew to be free of it was to spend more. (This is a phrase that is adapted from another 12 step program.)


Tracking our numbers is a way to avoid the vagueness and the fantasy.  Just like the compulsive overeater who eats more calories than they expend, the compulsive debtors spends and borrows more than he/she can afford.  A spending plan (Debtors Anonymous) is very much like a food plan (Overeaters Anonymous).  The first sight of one usually terrifies us and we feel ashamed that we don’t have limits.


In driving, there are limits to what we can do.  We might call them rules, but limits might be more appropriate.  The are speed limits, yellow lines and white lines.  There are stop lights, go lights and yellow lights.  There are signs that cause us to yield and take turns and how to get to our destination.  Each of the these limits and signs are there for our safety and helps us get to our destination.  If we decide to ignore the lines we might drive off the side of the road or worse hit another vehicle.  We not only injure ourselves, but others.  We may go to fast or too slow.  We need to yield to other drivers.


In recovery from compulsive debting/underearning, we have limits.  We find that it works best if we set the limits with guidance from others.  It typically does not work to have another’s limits imposed on us, but if we work together with a therapist, trusted friend, someone good with money or another DA member, we will find that limits are wonderful things.  It helps us get to where we want to go.  Many of us spend because it gives us a sense of “freedom.”  (Boy, that sounds like a credit card slogan)  But, we may honestly ask ourselves, “does it really?”  Does this really meet my needs at my deepest level.  Many of us feel ashamed of our spending and debt.


But, it might be wonderful to take a new look at ourselves, our behaviors and our needs in a new light.  No one recovers very well while beating themselves up.  The pain we caused ourselves by our own thinking can set us up for relapse.  We come up with a plan to help us stay on course.  “We are not perfect, we are not saints, the point is we are willing to grow along spiritual and financial lines.” (a paraphrase adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous and Debtor’s Anonymous)


The process of recovery is typically slow.  We would like to recover all at once.  Isn’t this our problem. It is the stores fault or credit cards fault or that illness I had or the job losses fault.  We lacked patience. We have trouble waiting.  Instead of saving for a future need or want, we buy bought on credit.  Instant gratification.  No payments until two years from now.  Don’t feel too bad.  Many are affected by these ploys, but the compulsive debtor who is ready for recovery understands that he/she cannot continue the cycle, the vortex of financial destruction.  But if we were loving and honest with ourselves, we found that the problem was within us, but so was the solution.


The Problems with Debting, Compulsive Spending and Underearning

The Cost of Debting

  1. Physical Illness – hospital visits and doctor visits
  2. Chronic Stress — since financial management is so crucial to our needs for survival, we can carry stress deep within our bodies.  It is not until we are relieved from the financial burden that we realized the load we were carrying.  We got better physically as we had a plan for debt recovery.
  3. Distrust in Relationships — often we might have spent in secret and hid our purchases so that we would not be controlled, manipulated or shames by a loved one.  The more we hid, the more distrust we brought to the relationship.
  4. Blaming others — we blamed our parents, our spouses, our children, the government, the insurance companies, our employers and anyone we could for our financial problems.  While they may have an influence on our finances, we are responsible for our recovery.  We didn’t want to have the problem, so we didn’t accept it.  There is hope for us, as we take response-ability.  We find a way to respond to life, rather than perceiving “life as happening on us.”
  5. Inability to provide for our families.  Our families might be doing without the things they needed because we have mismanaged money.
  6. We may have become “time impoverished.”  Our time is spent worrying and thinking about money.  We may mismanage our time as well as our money.  You have heard the slogan, “time is money.”  There is a connection, but it may be more accurate to say that time is a measure of life we have on this earth.  To waste time is to waste our life.  To not have enough time is really about not getting to do the things we want to do.
  7. Overworking – we felt compelled to work, that we didn’t have choice.
  8. Sleep Deprivation.  We didn’t realize that we didn’t sleep well.  Our troubles were keeping us out of the deeper stages of sleep.
  9. Other Addictions. Some of us overate to compensate for feelings in deprivation.
  10. Bad Credit and High Interest rates
  11. Lack of Peace – no material possession will feel as good as being at peace with ourselves.


Desperation, Inspiration and Perspiration (DIP)

When we are driven to desperation we gain the inspiration to really recover.  This leads us to some form of work or perspiration that we need to do to gain freedom.  Recovery though is not about will power.  The perspiration is to take the necessary steps to attract the Grace of God to get free.


Saying “No” to ourselves.  Saying “Yes” to ourselves.

We have trouble saying “no” to ourselves.  We told ourselves that we were not going to let it happen again.  Will power doesn’t work.  One just can’t say “no” to debting.


We can only say “no” or “yes” with God’s help.  We learned that we were the ones getting ourselves into debt. We couldn’t get out by ourselves.  We had the illusion of control over our problem.   We had trouble saying “no” to friends who need money, charities and collectors who wanted all the money now.  Being “all or nothing” thinkers we didn’t consider a payment plan an option.  It would be too painful.  Our pride wouldn’t let us make a $5 dollar payment, nor could we be honest about the exact nature of our finances, because we felt that they reflected our self worth.


Because we couldn’t say “no” to ourselves, we couldn’t say “yes” either.  We weren’t able to take care of our basic needs.  We felt guilty when we bought something for ourselves.  Our self worth was in the bottom of the barrel.  We felt that we needed to earn other’s love and that we were not enough.  Our debt made it difficult to say “yes” to God’s plan or yes to even the plans we had.  We were stuck in the vortex.


One must admit that it is stronger than they are.  The force of money, mammon, greed – whatever you want to call it is bigger.  Powerlessness is not helplessness.  Superman is weakened near kryptonite.  It is not that he is helpless over it.  He just understands it power over him.  So he stays away from it.  We can’t just stay away from money.  It is about calling on a Power greater than ourselves, that is God who will enable us to spend within limits and appropriately for us.


Handouts on Debting, Compulsive Spending and Underearning

Personality Traits of Addiction

Defensive Mechanisms of Addiction  (in MS Word)

The 4th Step Handout  (PDF Format)

The Neurobiology of Addiction – by David Marley, Pharm.D.

“My Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson

Continuum of Addictive Risk and Healthy Behaviors

The Passions and the 12 Steps of AA

The 12 Steps in Reverse

Who am I? I am your Disease This chilling letter from the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction wakes the addict up to the damage addiction causes and the battle that takes place in recovery.

Gamblers Anonymous – 12 step for Compulsive Gambler

Wheel of Misfortune – short article on compulsive gambling.

20 Questions for Compulsive Gamblers

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Debtors Anonymous (DA)

Debtors Anonymous (DA) – Washington State Link

Workaholics Anonymous (WA)

The –a website dedicated to recovery principles. – I don’t believe in credit or karma, but this is a very useful site to help you look at your credit score for free, unlike “” which draws you into an expensive program through “bait” and “switch” techniques. – helpful site in determining your credit and overall financial picture.  There is no charge for this.


Meeting Lists

DA Meetings in Washington State


Recordings and Podcasts


A humorous look at an obvious truth from Saturday Night Live – “Don’t buy Stuff you can afford.”

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California, TX 70240

+22 140 006 754

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