Signs of Compulsive Debting

This is a list put out by Debtors Anonymous. One old article about the group, at, explains that "Compulsive, in D.A. terms, means that the individual has a history of repeatedly incurring debt despite negative emotional and financial consequences. He or she somehow justifies each new loan or late payment, or borrows to obtain relief from pressures often perceived as intolerable."

They also have a list of fifteen self-diagnostic questions, of which they say "most compulsive debtors will answer yes to at least eight of the following 15 questions." Personally, I answered no to almost all of them... but this list of twelve signs kicked my ass. Hopefully, my experiences with it will help others to understand some of what unhealthy financial behavior includes.

1. Being unclear about your financial situation. Not knowing account balances, monthly expenses, loan interest rates, fees, fines, or contractual obligations.

Let me tell you... I used to be about $350 in debt to some of my friends. I finally paid off the last $250 of that last August. Then, a week ago, I was over there helping them organize some papers, and I found a card I had sent them. I opened it and the $250 check fell out.

I had no idea that they hadn't cashed it, but (of course) the money was no longer in my account. It's a continual dance of "well... if that's what the bank says I have... everything must have already gone through, right?" Not only that, but I have no idea whether I just forgot about the check, or whether I asked them not to cash it yet and then forgot about that.

In the article mentioned above, someone is quoted as saying "I never understood money, or what I did with it." That summarizes my financial life pretty neatly.

2. Frequently "borrowing" items such as books, pens, or small amounts of money from friends and others, and failing to return them.

I'm terrible. I even do this on purpose. I have a pen in my pocket right now that I borrowed from my ex's house because we were playing a game and she was all "Ok, this is your pen" and for a minute I thought she meant it was actually my pen, that I had left it there or something. And I just decided to keep thinking that. More often, though, I just take forever to return things because I'm so out of it. I have all these books that I forget belong to someone else until they mention it, or that I know belong to someone else but I haven't returned them even though it's been a year because I swear I'm still going to get around to reading them. Most of these people probably don't even realize I still have their stuff; they've long since written it off as lost.

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."

Is there another way to live? I put off thinking about my taxes because I don't want to deal with them and I like to pretend that I'll come up with some way to escape paying them. I still owe taxes for this year, in fact, although I did manage to file an extension at the last minute over the telephone.

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.

I've never left price tags on clothes. I've always thought of that as restricted to plotlines in wacky sitcoms: Oh no! Rachel left the tag on her $5000 Versace dress so she could return it the day after the big party, and then Ross spilled wine all over it!

I do, however, make terrible impulsive purchases, especially at the bookstore and grocery store. I don't really regret many of my book purchases, mind you. But I tend to go to the grocery store and freak out because I'm not sure whether I want this kind of juice or that kind of juice, and oh the yogurt looks good, and hm, now I don't really want the cheese I came here to buy but I should get it cause I was already going to, and I end up getting both of the juices so I won't have to choose and the yogurt even though I don't really want it because what if I get home and I really DO want it and then I'm sad!

I think it's some sort of struggle with deprivation and a fear of scarcity, for me.

5. Difficulty in meeting basic financial or personal obligations, and/or an inordinate sense of accomplishment when such obligations are met.

Well, given the amount of debt I'm in, I'd say difficulty in meeting basic financial obligations is something of a given.

I went to my first Debtors Anonymous meeting tonight, and I learned that there are two terms that seem to be really big there - "vagueness" and "time debting." I guess that being vague about time and money is a big part of compulsive debting sorts of behavior, which matches the way I think of... and default on... personal obligations.

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.

I guess there is a certain thrill to swooshing that little plastic card through the machine. My credit card is linked to my bank account, though, so the thrill for me is really more from knowing that what I just bought is already all paid for - sort of the opposite of what they have here. I'm lucky; I don't have any functional credit cards.

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.

I want to say that this has been my life since I got laid off from Ask Jeeves about a year and a half ago, but in fact even when I worked at my swanky dot-com job and made $36,000 a year (all right, it wasn't that swanky) I was still consistently spending every bit of my paycheck. At the time it somehow made perfect sense to me that I was living from paycheck to paycheck, spending it all in a week, and still having to freak out because my car needed repairs suddenly or I didn't have enough money yet to cover the bills. Once I started living on unemployment, though, and then on part-time jobs, I looked back on that and realized how insane it was that all the financial problems I had on unemployment were there when I was making, supposedly, way more money than I needed.

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.

When I was $900 in debt to my therapist, she told me in all seriousness that I was really good with money. I laughed in her face. But she tried to explain that even when I routinely spent all of my money and wrote the empty checks and lived paycheck to paycheck, when some horrible bill came up I somehow magically found some way to get the money just that one time, and that that made me good with money.

The fact, of course, was that I had no idea (and still have no idea) how to handle my money or draw up and stick to a budget or anything. Even more importantly, though, today I was thinking about money in the context of addiction and I realized that the way I behave with money is very much the way an alcoholic would behave with alcohol - with the same sense of living on the edge, doing all kinds of desperate things to get the next check or the next drink. It kind of irks me, in fact, that she not only did not notice that this was addictive behavior but actually thought it was good. But then, this is the same therapist who - when I started going to CoDA meetings - told me that I didn't act codependent.

I still owe her over $900... so hopefully she's learned.

9. Unwarranted inhibition and embarrassment in what should be a normal discussion of money.

This is the other one that I don't actually have, although I used to. I think that the only reason I don't writhe with embarassment when talking about money anymore is that I've politicized it. I saw part of a program once that talked about how most people (at least, I assume, in the United States) are more comfortable talking about sex or really about almost anything than about money. People are so often afraid to talk about what they earn, or how much their parents made, or how much debt they may be in, or what any of that means to them.

A lot of employers (Deloitte & Touche, for one) won't let their employees talk about how much they earn; if you tell someone your salary, you are immediately fired. At my first job, at the Yolo County Public Library in Davis, we weren't supposed to tell anyone how much we were making. About a year after we got a less uptight boss, right before I left, I finally asked my co-workers how much they made. They were all making more than I was.

I think a major effect of not being able to talk about our wages is that employers can mess around with people as much as they want; they can continue to pay women less than men working the same job, they can pay higher for brown-nosing without fear of retribution from equally skilled workers, et cetera. I know women who have found out after leaving a job that they were being paid half of what their male coworkers were getting. It's also a big class shame thing; we're not supposed to talk about growing up poor or working-class, or about the different experiences of different classes in our society. We're supposed to pretend that the United States has a classless culture, that we're all middle-class and everyone has a level playing field. By being willing to talk about my own issues with money and class, I might be able to chip away at a little of that.

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.

Continuting for a moment on the political note, I don't really like the inclusion of "taking jobs below your skill and education level" here. It seems a little out of touch with the current economic climate, and a little condescending, as if everyone ought to have the same upwardly mobile goals. It also brings up a lot of questions for me - like, what about the Latino person who is ignored in job applications at a dot-com, or the friend of Dorothy refused a promotion, or the 70-year-old who only McDonald's will hire, or the disabled black woman who has to struggle even to find jobs that are accessible to her?

At the same time, though, I realize that (as in all of these kinds of lists) they're just indicating that if someone is taking jobs below their skill or education level as a part of underearning, as a part of a sort of continuous deprivation and lack of self-care, then that's when it becomes a problem.

My current jobs probably all qualify as below my education level somehow: I do the laundry for some friends who are on disability, I transcribe voicemails for an activist on hiatus, I do five hours a week of housekeeping for Mandana Community Recovery Center, and I am part of a program training queer youth to present health-related workshops for a monthly stipend. I much prefer them to my previous corporate schmoe job. However, I do underearn. I try and try to get it together enough to make and sell truffles, or to put out flyers advertising Reiki treatments, attunements, and classes. All to no avail, because deep down, I am terrfied of accepting that I deserve more money and that I have power and agency (there's the fancy college education) in the world.

11. An unwillingness to care for and value yourself: Living in self-imposed deprivation; denying your basic needs in order to pay your creditors.

In spades.

My CoDA sponsor remarked to me once that when people grow up with abuse, and then leave it in adulthood, they often do all kinds of things to recreate that state of chaos and uncertainty and fear, because it's what feels familiar.

I don't know if I would notice denying my basic needs in order to pay my creditors, because I often deny my basic needs anyway. I'll often be sitting at the computer, realize that I'm hungry, and then proceed to stay here for two or three or four hours rather than walk into the kitchen to grab a snack to eat at the computer. I always just wrote that off as normal geek behavior, but the more I learn about how I function in the world, the more I realize that it's part of a larger unhealthy pattern for me. So the pattern of not caring for or valuing myself is fairly clear.

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.

I was thinking about this one today as well. I definitely have class privilege; I have parents who are well-off enough to lend me money if I need it. My mother especially wants to pay for my American Sign Language classes and help me with car repairs, I think because she can no longer really control anything about my life unless she pays for it, and if she pays for something that way she can feel like she's taking care of me and expressing her love, as well as fixing anything for me that she might worry about. Personally, I prefer hugs, but you know. It's hard to say no to cash. I realized today that I tend to bounce along a little bit above rock bottom, financially, and that a big part of the reason I do this is because then I can see how much support I have. My roommate offers to buy pizza for both of us, my friends pay for video rentals and give me gas money, my mother can be prevailed upon to help me out.... But I need to learn to trust that these people love and support me without taking advantage of them. It's time for me to learn how to be a functional adult with some kind of sense of self-worth and ability to balance a checkbook.

More information on compulsive debting, underearning, overspending, and so on can be found at

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