ONLY ONE THING takes place at 8 o’clock on Friday night in a Manhattan church basement: 12-step recovery meetings. But the meeting I’m sitting in on tonight, at the corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue, isn’t Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or any of the myriad other substance abstinence programs that so many New Yorkers find themselves intersecting with in one way or another at some point in their lives. This is a meeting of Debtors Anonymous, DA, the “numbers program” as it is often referred to in 12-step culture.
The members of DA are not unified by a common addiction, such as an addiction to compulsive shopping. While some members do identify as compulsive, or even “blackout” spenders or shoppers, others, who identify as “underearners,” simply earn significantly less money than they need to survive. Still others find themselves caught off-guard by, and unable to surmount, expensive bills such as medical emergencies, college or starting a family. Some simply find themselves no longer able to afford the standard of living they had grown accustomed to, often because their investments have suffered. “There’s been a lot of that lately, in this economy,” says Zipora E. a feisty, 5-foot-tall, 76-year-old Israeli woman who speaks with the theatrical conviction (and authority) of Ruth Gordon and has been coming to DA for just over 12 years now.
What the members do share in common is a commitment to living debt free. They do not incur unsecured debt, one day at time, hopefully for the rest of their lives. Unsecured debt is any debt that is not backed by something tangible: home loans and auto loans are secured debts (the home and car are collateral supporting the specific loan), while credit cards loans are not. Put simply, DA members do not purchase what they cannot afford. “We live within our means,” Zipora explains, “but our means do not define us.”
It’s a novel way of living in a society where credit is considered a fundamental element of the economy and one’s net-worth an important measure of one’s overall value.
Zipora came to Debtors Anonymous in 1997. Two years earlier, at age 62, she was let go from her New York-based job as VP of marketing for Israel’s biggest aircraft production company. She was two years away from having earned a pension of $2,500 per month and had to make due, instead, with $375.78. “How was I supposed to live on that?” she asks, recalling her difficulties. Try as she did, she couldn’t find another job. “Who was going to hire a 62-year-old woman?” Two years later she was at wits’ end.
She had acquired 12 credit cards by then and had been paying her rent, for those two years, with cash advances from the cards deposited into her checking account. But she’d finally run out of funds. “Some friends recommended Debtors Anonymous,” she explains, “and I thought, ‘Bullshit, what are they going to do for me in DA? Pay my rent?’” But she went anyway, just to prove them wrong. “I decided to go for six months and to do everything they told me to do just to prove to everyone that it didn’t work. Then I was going to kill myself. That was my plan. I had even begun thinking of ways to do it.” Since that time 12 years ago, she has been solvent—DA’s version of sobriety— which means she hasn’t debted once, ever since. Today she credits her very life to DA.
“I was sitting in a pressure relief group three years ago,” Zipora explains. Pressure Relief Groups, or P.R.G.’s, as they are called in DA, are small groups deliberately organized to help individual members come up with plans to alleviate their financial pressures. “A man told me that out of all the actions I needed to take, number one on my list was to see a doctor about a persistent cough I was having. I did that immediately and discovered that I had lung cancer. I went into treatment right away and today I am cancer free.”
The program that would eventually become Debtors Anonymous began in 1968 when a core group of recovering alcoholics from Alcoholics Anonymous began holding meetings to discuss their money problems. They first called themselves The Penny Pinchers and, later, Capital Builders. They tested a variety of theories and potential solutions concerning their chronic financial problems.
At different times the members focused on spending less, earning more and saving. At one point they went so far as to make daily deposits into saving accounts. Over time, however, the members recognized that their core problem was an inability to stay solvent, not an inability to save. The willingness to stop incurring unsecured debt of any kind—including credit cards or borrowing money without collateral— became their standard of recovery and what they considered a gateway to freedom from a variety of financial maladies. The group disbanded and reformed several times over
the years but formally and permanently established itself, under the leadership of John H. (DA’s version of Bill W.) as Debtors Anonymous in 1976 here in New York City. Today there are more than 500 registered D.A. meetings spread amongst more than 40 states and 20 countries.
The crowded meeting I’m sitting in on (there are at least 50 people here and not an empty chair in sight) is as diverse a 12-step community as I have ever seen. There are whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, men in business suits, hipster artists, one lady in a fur coat and even a transgendered person. Although people of all ages are welcome and encouraged to join (and, in fact, there are a few people here tonight who appear to be in their late twenties and a few, like Zipora, in their sixties and seventies), the majority of attendees look to be in their thirties through fifties. Many members refer to DA as the “graduate degree” of 12-step programs because of the hard work and financial transparency involved.
“I decided to go for six months and to do everything they told me to do just to prove to everyone that it didn’t work. Then I was going to kill myself.”
“I think it’s hardest for the young people to recognize when there’s a problem,” Zipora says. “So many of the credit card companies have created targeted campaigns meant to convince them that incurring debt is how you get ahead.” But that’s similar in many areas of recovery, even AA. Just as it is naturally harder for a 22-year-old who is going to bars and drinking and blacking out several times a week to see it as a problem than it is for a 32-year-old in the same situation, so is it hard for a 20-year-old living on credit cards and making minimum payments to understand the likely repercussions of that lifestyle.
“What finally brings people into DA is the same as it has always been: Not having enough money, honey,” Zipora says. “That’s why everybody comes. What they discover, if they stay, is that it isn’t about the money. It’s about the emotional anxiety underneath, and because that anxiety has manifested as financial problems, they have been too ashamed to talk about it or to ask for help.”
Several “newcomers,” people new to DA or 12-step programs, raised their hands to introduce themselves that night. Their stories and the circumstances of their debting behaviors were varied. But the word “shame” came up again and again.
Bruce McCleary, a spokesperson for the non-profit ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, observes a troubling pattern among his clientele along that same emotional line. He says that many consumers often wait until they are well over 60 days past due before seeking help, despite the fact that most of them knew that they were in trouble long before their accounts became delinquent. “Consumers are reluctant to reach out for help in the early stages of debt crisis,” he explains, “even when the help is offered for free.” He believes this is prompted by two factors: a reluctance to accept the reality of their financial circumstances (often manifested by the client’s unrealistic expectation that something unknown may happen soon to change their situation for the better and, therefore, the client takes no action) and, once this stage passes, a state of shame and embarrassment where they feel reluctant to discuss things with someone else for fear of being judged or belittled.
Sociologist and self-care expert BJ Gallagher agrees. She writes about money, shame and self-esteem, as well as relationships and money in several of her books, including Why Don’t I Do The Things I Know Are Good For Me. “Money is the last taboo in American society,” she says. “We will openly and easily discuss incest, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, family violence and many other formerly shame-filled topics with most anyone who will listen—but money? That’s a different story. There is still enormous shame and secrecy attached to money in general—and debt in particular.”
But why is that and what is the precise relationship between debt and shame? Doctors and researchers have been examining this question with the expectation that the answer will help shape an effective intervention.
Dr. David Kruegar, a psychiatrist and CEO of MentorPath, an executive coaching firm, has authored many books on the subject, including The Secret Language of Money. He believes that “emotional spending,” spending motivated by such driving forces as conspicuous consumption, revenge, a sense of emptiness, a craving for connection or any one of a number of other emotional impulses, is the core
mechanism underlying debt, and that shame ultimately results. “That
compelling urge to spend creates a need that drowns out the internal
call for logic, reason and common sense,” he says. “In that way a person
begins, for instance, to borrow money based on how much they can get
and not, more appropriately, on how much they can afford to repay.
follows,” he continues, “when the debt accumulates and eclipses normal
life and self-regard. The real expense of buying something you can’t
afford is that you have to pay more for it than the simple cost. First
you have to pay the emotional expense, then you have to pay the
financial interest, and then you have to pay interest on the emotional
expense… Shame is the most difficult emotion for anyone to deal with
because it is generated from not living up to one’s own ideals. Even
guilt can be rectified, but you can’t get away from shame because it is
generated at your core. Many suicides result from the hopelessness of
DA literature substitutes the word “suicide” for the word “death” in
the phrase “jails, institutions, and death,” commonly used in the
literature of many different 12-step programs to connote the likely ends
of those who fail to overcome their compulsions and/or self-destructive
behaviors. The substitution emphasizes the precise way the fellowship
believes that people die from debting.
argument that debt precedes shame is not the only one. Money
relationship mentor and certified financial counselor Helen Kim believes
that financial hardships and debt arise from low selfesteem and shame,
not the other way around. “The financial picture,” she says, “is merely a
result. The problems start when one tries to cover up shame or acts
unconsciously with money, looking to get unmet needs satisfied.” Kim
cites under-earning, overspending, debting and under-spending as the
most prevalent self-sabotaging behaviors that manifest from shame and
low self-esteem, the precise behaviors that most often manifest in the
members of DA.
Eddie Reece also believes that the accurate relationship between debt
and shame is that shame precedes debt. “Imagine that someone with no
shame loses a job and suffers financially,” Reece says. “Such people
often have little or no trouble asking for and receiving help. They
might feel badly, have bad feelings associated with the change in their
financial life, but they wouldn’t feel like they were a bad person. They
wouldn’t necessarily feel ashamed.”
idea could explain the interesting phenomenon of high rollers and
celebrities (think Donald Trump) who endure and bounce back from
personal and corporate bankruptcy with such apparent ease, while so many
middle- and working-class people despair at the very notion of filing
bankruptcy and struggle to recover afterward.
explains that emotional issues stemming from shame, such as poor
selfimage, or feelings of entitlement, can fuel unwise or troublesome
financial lifestyles. “When those underlying issues are resolved,” he
says, “financial lives improve regardless of the circumstances. Even if
there isn’t any more money, the shame, the feeling that one is
fundamentally a bad person, is gone. Folks in recovery in DA,” he
concludes, “are like those in AA in that they often discover that the
debt, or the drinking, wasn’t the primary problem. As they say in
12-step, it’s the ‘stinking thinking’ that’s the problem.”
believes that someone who genuinely wants financial help has to
overcome the combination of belief systems stemming from unresolved
emotional issues and genetics that generated the underlying shame in
order to have the financial life he or she desires.
it is the case that debt generates shame or that shame manifests as
debt or both, it is clear that there is a complex relationship between
the two and that breaking the cycle of either means confronting the root
causes of both.
what D.A. does: It illuminates everything,” Zipora says. “We learn to
take care of ourselves first and foremost, how to face our problems and
deal with them without going deeper into debt.”
is it possible to live in today’s society without incurring debt?
Wouldn’t there be difficult life choices, such as navigating higher
education without student loans, or regrets that critical opportunities
in business or personal investment would be lost without borrowing
only possible,” Zipora says, “it’s preferable. When I came into the
program I also thought it sounded nuts. What about emergencies? Today I
wonder what kind of emergency you need a credit card for? What’s an
emergency, really? And, sure, there are difficult choices to be made,
but DA teaches us there is always a solution. If it isn’t cancer, there
is a solution.”
only unsecured debt that’s out-ofbounds for DA members. Secured debt is
entirely permissible, making homeownership within reach. Higher
education is more challenging, as even low-rate, government-issued
student loans are not secured. But there are many distinguished state,
junior, community and vocational colleges that put quality educations
within reach of industrious students who might have to work a part-time
job in order to pay for the education outright.
9 o’clock now in the church basement, and the meeting is over. The
debtors, over-spenders and under-earners are mingling, exchanging phone
numbers and perspectives before heading out into the night. I, too, am
on my way home, but I can’t help recalling Zipora’s first words this
evening. “We live within our means but our means do not define us.”
Nice work, I think to myself, if you can get it.
Seth Michael Donsky is a journalist and screenwriter. He is currently working on his new screenplay, Irregardless.