Click here to listen to the podcast episode 034 for this blog post.
I’ve often said that for a true compulsive spender, living in deprivation is a sure way to set off the compulsion. Now, that is not the same as living within one’s means, which may include not buying everything we want the moment we want it.
However, I stand by my belief and that of those in 12 step recovery from compulsive spending, that we do not put our creditors first. We do not live in abject deprivation in order to pay off our debts quicker.
Now, I know Dave Ramsey is one of the top gurus of personal finance and responsibility. I get it. However, as I’ve told you before, his philosophy is all well and good for everyone … except compulsive spenders.
The Experts Don’t Understand Us
Look, experts like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman provide amazing tools and guidance to help people make sound financial decisions and get out of debt, but for those struggling with compulsive spending, there’s just no way they can simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and live responsibly with money, as these experts advise. Plus, as I have said, compulsive spenders often feel shamed by the implied message that they could succeed if only they tried harder. And that very thought, in fact, has caused me to go on a spending binge more times than you can imagine. Or maybe not, if you’re like me.
Until you deal with the underlying addiction, all the tools in the world are meaningless. But let’s say you do start to recover whether it’s through 12 step recovery or some other method. The fact is that if you are a true compulsive spender, you will do best with a balanced spending plan that enables you to live with some wants as well as needs while you pay off your debts.
I know this because my own experience, and those of others, shows me time and time again that, otherwise, we bounce between excessive restriction and breaking out of that prison into spending binges.
Paying Off Debt in Record Time Means an Unbalanced Life
So, when I, once again, heard Dave Ramsey lauding the efforts of a young man explaining how he paid off $41,000 in student loans in 13 and a half months, I wanted to cry.
Now, please bear in mind that this guy never said he was a compulsive spender. This was student loan he was repaying. But if you are a real compulsive spender and hear this story, I don’t want you to be deluded into thinking this is the path to recovery. No! The path to recovery is to learn sanity around spending money.
He says that he worked so much that there wasn’t time to spend money. Yeah, well for any true compulsive spender, there’s ALWAYS time to spend money. And the build up of pressure will only cause people like us to find a release valve … which is usually buying something … or a lot of somethings.
For me, sobriety means that I balance recovery, life, work, and repaying my debts. In his nightmare scenario, there was nothing but debt repayment. Hearing this story is manna for our addiction. Whoopeee! Let’s get our adrenaline really amped up and use force of will.
Trust me, it just doesn’t work for a real compulsive spender.
Free at Last!
In the episode, this man talked about working up to 80 hours a week in the beginning, missed vacations with his friends, and basically had no life at all. He was, naturally, jubilant about becoming debt-free and said he has plenty of cash flow. The implication is that since there’s money, life is grand.
Yeah, unless he’s a real compulsive spender who reacts to zero balances the same way a race horse reacts to the sound of the start pistol.
Two things. I’m not arguing that we can make choices about where we spend our money. So, maybe it was sober to skip the vacations. Sounds sober to me. But what doesn’t sound sane or sober is to stop doing anything that can balance out one’s life and to make one’s creditors our Higher Power. Secondly, it’s great that he has a tremendous cash flow. Not everyone does, though. And that makes balance even more important for those of us who need to recover from both the addiction and accept the reality that we only have so much money available.
Ramsey praises him for getting this done in a year and says it’s a “band-aid rip-off.” Ramsey also called this guy a hero.
Now, why on earth would we applaud living life so out of balance?
How I Hit My Bottom & Paid Off $34,000 in Debt
Right before coming back into recovery in 2009, I hit my bottom. I was $34,000 in debt. My son was getting ready to go to college. I had put away money for tuition, but hadn’t considered housing and living expenses, which would be another $7,000 more per year. Where was I going to get another $7,000?
When there was nowhere to turn, I hit my bottom. The depth of my pain, shame, and self-loathing were indescribable. One non-compulsive spender friend tried to be helpful and advised me to get rid of cable tv, eat canned food, and live on a tight budget to get it all paid off as quickly as possible and be able to pay for my son’s expenses. The Dave Ramsey path, right?
But just hearing it made me feel much, much worse. I knew, all too well, how many times I had made solemn promises to myself and others to put the brakes on. I had paid off thousands and thousands in debt before, only to believe the lie that I was cured and rack up even more debt the next time. Oh yeah, sure, I would just grin and bear it, live a life of complete austerity. Get that debt paid off. And never do it again.
I always had the best of intentions every time. But inevitably, within short order, I found myself blasting out of the self-imposed imprisonment with even more credit card debt and more stuff that I was convinced I would die if I didn’t buy.
Hitting this bottom, I knew I couldn’t do it their way. But I knew in my heart that there was a better way. Because I had found it before and walked away from it after paying off $22,000 of debt in early 2000s. See what I mean? It’s a progressive disease. $22,000 then, $34,000 in 2009.
Again, there is not just one path. But the way I was able to make a shift was through the 12 steps. And through working those steps and with the support of others who had gone before me, I was able to see clearly that the budget mentality, that putting my creditors first, that living in utter deprivation was just another tool my disease used to beat me up. And the weirdly bizarre ability of my addict mind to forget the pain once I experienced some relief was the biggest lie I had to face … and overcome. Because it is only by not forgetting that I am willing to continue in recovery once the pain is removed.
Once again, I was helped by others to develop a reasonable spending plan, not a budget, where I could have my needs met, some wants satisfied, and still work toward paying off my then $34,000 of credit card debt. Now, you can hear my explanation of the difference between a budget and a spending plan in episode 14 – icantstopspending/014.
The next year, 2010, I became disabled, and eventually lost half of my income. Still, my support system helped me refine my spending plan, which did mean, yes, I had to cut back even further, but not cut out. I contacted the credit card company and negotiated a hardship reduction in my payments without an increase in my interest rate (an unbelievable 2.99%, which is another miracle). But I continued to live within my means one day at a time, and still make regular payments to the credit card company.
Yes, there were pain points, there were agony points, but there was no spending binge backlash from not allowing myself to have any enjoyments of life, because I felt a need to punish myself by living in complete deprivation as penance for what I had done.
For non-compulsive spenders, maybe such a choice is just that. Penance. And maybe for a goal-oriented overachieving non-compulsive spender, it would make sense. But for this compulsive spender, I would never have made it.
So, instead of paying off my $34,000 in a year, I paid it off in seven. But in the end, I am just as debt-free as the man in Dave Ramsey’s podcast. And I didn’t have to destroy my health further or punish myself as a penance.
And because of this recovery, which is even more conscientious than my previous one, I didn’t lie to myself afterwards that
I could now do it on my own. I made sure that I remember the truth. I know I am powerless over compulsive spending and debt and need to wrap myself in the program of recovery that saved my life. And, by the way, everything worked out with my son’s college expenses.
So unlike the old me, and many I have known, I didn’t return to my old ways after I finished paying off the debt. I didn’t feel like I deserved a reward for getting out of debt and paying penance.
I implore you, if you are a true compulsive spender, heed my words. There is no need for you to destroy your life to pay back your creditors. Be responsible. Get help to figure out what you need to live, and how to find balance between the needs, the wants, and the debt. But please, don’t make your creditors your HP.
This time, my reward is continuing to live one day at a time within my means and not having to go through this process ever again. If I don’t pick up the credit card, I will never again have to pay off debt. If I don’t make the first compulsive purchase, I will never have a spending binge again. Today, I have tools that wrap me in a cloak of protection against the demon. yes, the demon may speak to me. I may even make a poor spending decision here and there. But like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, I have a sword to cut through the brambles and keep that demon at bay, a sword of recovery that will help me to reach my goal of sobriety that keeps me safe as long as I use it, so that one day at a time, I never have to go down the rabbit hole of addiction with money ever again.
The Magical Tool of Delayed Gratification
And by the way, there was another incredibly valuable lesson I learned by not behaving compulsively around paying off my debt. Believe me, there were times I wanted to move it along faster. But my support people were amazing in holding me back.
The lesson I learned was about delayed gratification. I saved this for last, because if you have never yet experienced it, you won’t understand why this is so miraculous. But once you do, you get it.
I often say that delayed gratification is the forgotten magical tool of recovery. If I plowed through, paying the debt off at the expense of all else, I wouldn’t have really experienced the spiritual fulfillment of that day when it was finally paid off. Instead, I would have drowned in a sea of exhaustion and adrenaline. And by the way, it would have been not much different from coming down off a spending binge.
Any spending, even debt repayment, can make me high. The point of recovery and sobriety around money is to learn how to spend in a balanced manner. The point of recovery around debt and spending is not to race to the finish line, but to learn to find serenity and peace on the journey.