Debtors Anonymous: What you can expect
wonder if Debtors Anonymous might hold the solution to your financial mess, but
were too afraid to attend a meeting?
will never know unless you go, but to help dispel your fears or negative
preconceived notions you may have about DA, CreditCards.com outlines exactly
what you can expect.
About the program
Anonymous is a group of people -- called a fellowship -- who support each other
in their quest to end compulsive debting. It's modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous,
and like AA, you follow a series of 12 steps and attend regular meetings to
deal with the addiction.
Yes, addiction. While not everyone who
chronically mismanages their finances is an addict, some may be considered so.
To know, DA offers potential signs, such as "living in chaos and drama around
money: using one credit card to pay another; bouncing checks; always having a
financial crisis to contend with."
experts frequently direct people to DA. "We refer people to Debtors Anonymous
all the time because we know it's legitimate," says John Ulzheimer, president
of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. "The first step is to recognize and
admit you have a problem and the second is to reach out."
The place and people
Meetings are frequently held in churches and
public libraries. Group size ranges from fewer than a dozen individuals to more
Setting aside, it's the people you're
most likely to notice. They seem like you. Well, at least some do, which can
offer immediate relief. After feeling pretty isolated in your money problems,
you find that you're neither strange nor alone.
The welcoming atmosphere can also be
striking. To most, it's great, but some find it off-putting. "The warmth of the
group scared me," says Carol M. (only first names are used) of her first Debtors Anonymous
meeting. "I wanted to be separate." Not a joiner by nature, Carol M. says she
"approached it like a tourist, with no intention of sticking around." Sixteen
years later, she's still going to meetings. Whichever way you react, though,
you'll certainly notice that those involved are committed and immensely
grateful for the program.
If you worry that there will be
pressure to join, that won't happen. In fact, there is no membership. You will,
however, be encouraged to return. Debtors Anonymous recommends attending at least six meetings
to determine if it's right for you.
Be prepared for the DA lingo. People
may introduce themselves using a variety of terms, such as "debtors,"
"compulsive spenders," or "under-earners." The phrase "working the program"
will probably come up too. According to Beth M., that means people are
"committed to using the tools to recovery. We talk specifically about keeping
track of your numbers, and trying not to act compulsively."
Do you need debt help?
Signs of compulsive debting
Being unclear about your financial
situation. Not knowing account balances, monthly expenses, loan interest rates,
fees, fines or contractual obligations.
Frequently "borrowing" items
such as books, pens or small amounts of money from friends and others, and
failing to return them.
Poor saving habits. Not planning for taxes,
retirement or nonrecurring but predictable items, and then feeling
surprised when they come due. A "live for today, don't worry about
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.
Difficulty in meeting basic financial
or personal obligations, an inordinate sense of accomplishment when such
obligations are met, or both.
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.
Living in chaos and drama around money:
Using one credit card to pay another; bouncing checks; always having a
financial crisis to contend with.
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.
Unwarranted inhibition and
embarrassment in what should be a normal discussion of money.
Overworking or underearning: Working extra hours to earn
money to pay creditors; using time inefficiently; taking jobs below your skill
and education level.
A feeling or hope that someone will
take care of you if necessary, so you won't really get into serious
financial trouble, that there will always be someone you can turn to.
- An unwillingness to care for and value yourself: Living in
self-imposed deprivation; denying your basic needs in order to pay your
While Debtors Anonymous is not a religious
organization, a belief in a "higher power" is integral, so you'll hear it a
lot. That can mean God or whatever you perceive a power greater than yourself
to be. Carol M. says that this aspect of the program didn't sit quite right
with her in the beginning. "I didn't have any religious background and prided
myself in not believing in God. When people started talking about it, it kind
of freaked me out. But I came back and realized I could create my own higher power."
DA meetings follow a basic format. They
typically open with an introduction by the leader and a welcome to those attending.
The Serenity Prayer is read: "God grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know
The preamble often comes next, which
states the mission and purpose of DA -- essentially, that its primary purpose
is to "stop debting one day at a time and to help other compulsive debtors to
stop incurring unsecured debt." Various announcements and an overview of
meeting rules might follow.
then comes your part: newcomers are asked to introduce themselves. At this
point you're in the group -- for the next 60 to 90 minutes anyway -- and are
given a special welcome.
After that, a designated speaker may go
into depth about his financial experiences and the way in which DA is helping.
The meeting then opens for individuals to talk (or share, as it's called).
Everyone has a few minutes each to discuss their struggles and successes with
debt and the program. No one is required or even expected to speak.
The meetings can be emotional. Chances
are you'll see tears and listen to painful stories. If you're not accustomed to
people expressing themselves candidly, this can be shocking. But it's also what
might be the most compelling. "Newcomers need to hear that the disease shows up
in different ways," says Carol M. "We are all just trying to avoid debt."
The meeting concludes with
announcements, collecting voluntary contributions (there are no dues, but if
you'd like to contribute for the venue and other costs you may), and the
closing statement, which is a reminder to keep everything you heard in
confidence and to apply what you heard effectively. Standing and holding hands
in a short prayer often ends a meeting.
Mystery, unraveled. Debtors Anonymous is not a panacea
for everyone with a charging problem, but it's worth a try, as it can produce
astounding results. "I was $25,000 in debt and
paid it all off. I came in not knowing how to save money and now have $400,000
in retirement as well as $20,000 in reserves," says Allan T. "I came in
defeated and got hope."
See related: Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle, A peek into Debtors Anonymous, Financial denial: When avoidance creates money mayhem
Published: May 26, 2011