Hoarders: Buried in debt
Compulsive behavior overrides financial common sense
It's easy to spot the home of a hoarder. As many have seen through
the popular A&E TV show "Hoarders," people with this mental disorder pile up possessions and never throw anything
out, turning their homes into wrecks.
What's less visible is the financial wreckage committed by the estimated
600,000 to 1.2 million hoarders. Their compulsive, incessant acquiring behavior can leave bank accounts as empty as their homes are full.
How hoarding leads to money problems
While most people buy and keep things
they don't need occasionally, hoarders go to sad extremes: Bedrooms become impassible due to piles of never-worn clothes, dishwashers get filled with never-read newspapers, and never-played games teeter in stacks that near the ceiling.
The financial impact, however, is often
just as distressing. "About 75 percent of people with hoarding problems buy
excessively, with over half qualifying for a diagnosis of compulsive buying,"
says Randy Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College and author of "Stuff:
Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things." "Hoarders tend to have lots of
credit cards and pile up huge credit card debt," says Frost.
Janet LaCava, from Daly City, Calif.,
understands how damaging compulsive buying and hoarding can be. Her mother
lived in profound financial stress because of it. "She would buy a lot of dumb
stuff off the home shopping channel. Hairpieces, hair care products, figurines
of angels," says LaCava. Each ordered item added to her mom's debt and
When compulsive shopping
Not everyone who hoards is a compulsive
shopper, but many are. Think you might be? Frost offers a few clear markers:
Hoarding tendencies often begin at the
age of 13 or 14, but excessive acquisition starts a few years after that, when
you have more access to money.
- You can't walk away from something because you think it will
be the only time and place to ever get it. (While that may be true sometimes,
hoarders who shop compulsively feel this way a lot.)
Your buying is cued by a mood change. For example, you may
have to purchase something just because you're happy or sad.
Your stuff defines you. You have to buy and have it and
don't want other people touching it.
You purchase things you don't use. For example, you may have
brand new things that are still in the box. It's the process of buying
something that drives the purchase rather than the actual item.
But it's not just credit card debt that
becomes problematic, says Michael A. Tompkins, author of "Digging Out: Helping
your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring." Many times
power and gas are turned off, too. "Their homes fall into disrepair, things
start to fall apart," says Tompkins. "Their primary asset slowly begins to
To worsen matters, hoarders typically
have great difficulty organizing their possessions, especially paperwork, says
Frost. "The volume of clutter and disorganization means they can't find bills,
receipts and even the checkbook when they need them. Consequently, bills don't get
paid on time, paychecks get lost, receipts necessary for reimbursements never
Hoarders also tend to rent storage
space to house excess items, depleting income even further.
Friends and family members affected
A hoarder's bills often burden friends
and family members. "If you have a loved one who is facing eviction because of
the hoarding problem, you have a problem, too," says Tompkins. "You have to ask
yourself, 'Do I permit my mother or father to live on the street -- or live
with me and take their hoarding problem with them?' That's a tough spot to be
LaCava experienced such pressure firsthand.
When her mom would run out of funds, she'd turn to her daughter. "She would
call and ask for money for gas and other things," says LaCava, who paid for
what she could, but it wasn't always enough. "I could barely afford to pay my
own expenses," she says.
Tragically, depression is common among
those who suffer from hoarding and LaCava's mother recently took her own life.
Today, her children are left dealing with not just the emotional fallout, but
their mother's liabilities and a house bursting with things.
Financial signs that a loved one
may have a hoarding problem
In Michael A. Tompkins' book, "10 Early Signs that Your
Loved One May Have a Hoarding Problem," he describes the financial signs of
hoarding. The person who suffers from this disorder:
- Has bill collectors calling constantly because of missed
payments -- even though the debtor has money to pay
Discovers that the telephone company has
disconnected his phone or that he is living without power or heat.
May not be able to locate bills or other important notices
or documents because of the clutter in the home.
Financial and psychological help
For the financial concerns related to
hoarding, "the only really safe way to safeguard their money is to get treated
for the compulsive buying and hoarding," says Frost.
The compulsive-acquiring aspect is
treatable with a laddered approach, says Tompkins. For instance, a therapist
may first do "drive-by shopping" with the patient, just cruising past a
favorite store. "The next step is sitting in the parking lot, looking at the
store; the next is going into the store and stepping back out again," says
Tompkins. The ultimate goal is to get the person comfortable with not shopping,
and to make decisions quickly and effectively. The International Obsessive
Compulsive Foundation offers a list of treatment resources.
Professional organizers have merit, too,
as they work with the person to categorize each item and decide what stays and
what goes. As a motivator, Monica Friel, president of the Chicago-based
company Chaos to Order and consultant
for the TV show, "Hoarding: Buried Alive," says most hoarders locate assets and
long-lost financial documents amid the mess. She recently helped someone
discover $11,000 worth of bonds.
As for helping a hoarder out with their
bills, that's fine, says Tompkins, but don't sacrifice your own financial
welfare and do attach conditions. Explain that you'll cover some expenses, but
only if they get real help. He also says to resist making threats to call the
landlord or authorities, too. "The leverage you have is your caring and honest
relationship. Don't ruin it."
See related: Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle, Q&A: Avis Cardella writes on overcoming shopping addiction, Severe debt can cause depression and even suicide
Published: October 20, 2010
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