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Addicted to Debt? Consider Debtors Anonymous

Erica Sandberg

March 6, 2012

QDear Erica,

After 23 years of being in a constant state of debt and depression, I’m starting to think I have a credit card addiction. I can’t stop, but I can’t keep going though this. I shop when I’m happy, or stressed, or even bored, and it makes me feel better until the bills arrive. Then, I go shopping again because I want to forget about what I’ve done. I declared bankruptcy back in 2008, and I’m mortified that I’m back in the hole again. My husband even left me because I ran through our savings too many times. I can’t go bankrupt again, so I’m stuck. What should I do to get off this terrible Farris wheel? — Margot

AHi Margot,

Before doing anything else, head over to your computer. Type in “Debtors Anonymous” and your city into a search engine, and look for meetings in your area. You already suspect that you are a compulsive credit card user, and from what you wrote, I believe you are as well. This organization can help.

After finding a meeting (if none are close, you can participate over the phone), mark your calendar and go. Don’t put it off and hit the mall instead. At DA, you’ll connect with individuals who have similar problems handling money and credit, and who will share their experiences, challenges and successes. In this environment, you will likely identify your own reasons for over-charging and receive the support necessary to put an end to it — one day at a time.

DA is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step model, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, you’ll feel like a fish out of water at first. There is lingo to learn, and the meetings follow a specific format. But don’t worry about all that. Just go. Besides the comfort in knowing that you’re not alone, you’ll also receive tools to help you overcome your addiction. Here are a few good ones. They’re also great for people who are not in program:Ask Erica

1. Reduce temptation. If you still have access to credit, close the accounts. You may not be able to formally cancel a card with a remaining balance, but you can have your charging rights suspended.

2. Avoid your hot spots. Where are you spending your money? The mall, online retailers, swank boutiques? Wherever it is, steer clear and find another place to play.

3. Call a friend. If you go to DA, you may get a sponsor to contact when you’re feeling weak. However, even if you don’t, confide in a loved one about what you’re going through and what you want to achieve. Ask if you can call him or her before you careen out of control.

4. Pinpoint your psychological triggers. Emotions are running your financial show. Write down what’s going through your head right before you’re tempted to overspend. Do you need the items? Or will they simply calm or excite you? Rereading your own words can be illuminating.

5. Remember how bad debt feels. Amnesia strikes those who consistently charge more than they can afford to repay. You may focus on the immediate and delicious sensation of wearing a brand new cashmere sweater but ignore the very real sense of panic and depression that always comes when the bills arrive.  Recall those negative memories before spending. They may stop you from completing the purchase.

6. Learn to love saving money. For some, tucking aside cash is naturally enjoyable. Others need to adopt the habit and learn to gain pleasure from it. Trust me, though, it can be done. When you’re desperate to drop cash on something unnecessary, take that money and deposit it in the bank instead. Watch your savings grow like a lovely flower — and then into a beautiful garden.

I know how hard it is to change entrenched habits. Breaking an addiction is often a long and arduous process. Give Debtors Anonymous a chance. Continue with your own education too. Read about credit, and borrow some personal finance and self-help books from the library to learn new and better ways to make yourself happy.