When paying off debt becomes an addiction

Know when your goal is putting your health and welfare at risk


When paying off debt becomes an addiction Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


When paying off debt becomes an addiction Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


While satisfying creditors is a respectable goal, when devotion goes too far for too long, the behavior just might be defined as debt-repayment addiction.

Obsessing over debt, working constantly without adequate rest, existing on a bare-bones budget when it’s not necessary: this is the lifestyle of many who are extremely compelled to climb out of the hole.

While living beyond one’s means is common – the January 2016 Pew Survey, The State of America Family Finances found 71 percent of respondents say they are afraid they don’t have enough money to cover expenses – others fervently oppose carrying debt. They will pay it off, even if it means sacrificing sleep, relationships and sometimes even personal safety.

Process, not chemical, addiction 
According to Cali Estes, CEO of The Addictions Academy, there are two basic types of addiction: chemical, such as a dependency on alcohol, and process, which is an attachment to a particular behavior. Excessive debt repayment falls into the latter category.

Theoretically, whenever a habit changes into an obligation, addiction is a possibility, noted a U.S. National Library of Medicine report, “Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views.” “The person thinks, ‘I don’t want the debt; I have to get rid of it’ which is great, it’s healthy,” says Estes. “But then it can transition into something else; something harmful when that all he thinks about or is going to negative extremes to achieve it. For process addiction, the brain releases its own chemicals instead of a drug.”

I worked three months without a single day off. It was exhausting, but it was what was needed to be done.

— Eric Cobb
Personal trainer

Debt repayment addiction can create just as many problems as any other rudderless compulsion, asserts Rebecca Eve Selkowe, a New York City financial coach and author of “Dominate Your Debt: A Work and Play Book.” While she’s an advocate of going the extra mile to achieve solvency, too much can cause “long-term insomnia, insufficient time with loved ones and declining health due to not eating properly or not getting enough rest,” says Selkowe.

Goals take on heightened importance 
In virtually every personal finance book, the word “goal” is prominent. Without identifying and working toward a financial target, you may never get where you want to be financially. Yet while going full force is usually positive, “People can become so focused on the goal that it takes over,” says Selkowe, who repaid $168,000 in student loans in five years.

Being wildly compelled to pay down debt can be advantageous, though, as it was for Kate-Madonna Hindes from St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2007, she was diagnosed with cancer. At the time she worked for a small business that didn’t offer health insurance benefits. Once her cancer was in remission, she got pregnant and had whooping cough. Medical bills poured in, eventually totaling over $70,000.

Since Hindes’ ultimate goal was to buy a house and improve her life quickly, she had to satisfy her liabilities. So she took on three jobs: “I was a single mom and we lived poor. I drove super used cars. I cleaned toilets.”

In just over three years, Hindes zeroed out her balances and in 2015, achieved homeownership. “Paying off my bills was magical,” says Hindes, now president of her public relations company,

Manhattan resident and personal trainer Eric Cobb is also singularly focused on his repayment goal. “Once I decide on a certain outcome, I just go for it,” says Cobb. That spirit kicked into high gear when he decided to tackle a $10,000 credit card bill, accumulated after leaving his law firm position in Chicago.

Cobb had moved to New York to pursue a musical career and relied on plastic “way more than I should have.” So he changed. “I quit the music thing and went head first into fitness training,” says Cobb. “I put away my credit cards and often worked seven days a week, starting many days as early as 6 a.m.” Setbacks drove him to work longer and harder, waking hours earlier to take on more clients while drastically slashing expenses and moving into a cheaper apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. “I worked three months without a single day off,” says Cobb. “It was exhausting, but it was what was needed to be done.”

When debt-repayment addiction takes front stage 
Putting your health at risk to repay debts isn’t the best avenue, but for those with especially strong moral codes and determination, rationality can become irrelevant. “Many who are this committed have been raised in a very strict religious household,” says Estes. “This is how you operate. You borrow money, you give it back. It’s about ethics.”

When a person with this type of personality trait can’t repay, the effect can be devastating, as it was for Mary Kaarto, from Missouri City, Texas. Kaarto, author of “Hope for the Laid Off – Devotionals,” once owed more than $25,000 after a divorce, long bouts of unemployment and a debilitating accident.

There’s definitely a ‘what else can I conquer?’ issue for people who’ve dedicated so much to the process. They can become fixated on finding the next thing.

— Dr. Cali Estes
CEO, The Addictions Academy

The psychological and physical fallout was intense. “I couldn’t breathe,” says Kaarto. “I felt very ashamed. I couldn’t help but feel it was personal. Your mind goes into a very, very dark place.”

Although she could have filed for bankruptcy, Kaarto went the opposite direction. She begged for work. “Sixty dollars was a lot of money to me, but I had an idea to use it to make a magnetic car sign that said, ‘Laid-off editor, will work for money,’” says Kaarto, who eventually landed a freelance writing job, then began caring for a woman with Alzheimer’s. “When she slept, I wrote.”

Then Kaarto got a managerial position at a storage company on the weekends. With one full-time and two part-time jobs, she worked seven days a week, and was making headway. Nothing would stop her, including love. Kaarto got engaged but refused to marry until she achieved financial independence. “I said, ‘I’m not walking down the aisle until I’m free of my debt. That’s my deal.’”

Kaarto says the joy, self-esteem and self-respect she gained was worth the effort: “I know I did it. We are debt-free and it feels amazing.”

When one addiction multiplies 
Recovering from one addiction can lead to another. Steps 8 and 9 of the Alcoholic Anonymous 12-step program involve making amends. If that means struggling to repay creditors that may no longer expect remittance, you do it.

Britni de la Cretaz, a Boston writer who was 18 when she opened her first credit cards, promptly maxed them out. “Just as quickly I realized I was unable to pay them, so then I started to throw out my mail.” Being an alcoholic didn’t help. Medical and legal bills racked up, too, and she soon owed more than $10,000. “Even when I had jobs I wasn’t paying them down,” she says. “It was going to drugs and alcohol.” All accounts were delinquent, and racking up fees.

Then de la Cretaz got sober. “I had to open the bills,” says de la Cretaz, who had her partner send her mail while in rehab. “It was overwhelming. But I made all the calls in one day.” De la Cretaz explained that she was an alcoholic and had to pay. She arranged payment plans of $10 per month, then got a job scooping ice cream for $7.50 an hour. Most went to basic expenses, but the rest went to creditors – until she gradually satisfied everyone.

“A weight was lifted,” de la Cretaz says. “I had been avoiding it for so long, but it had weighed on me. When I confronted it head-on, there was freedom. I felt better when I did the right thing. It was something I had no choice but to do, and was willing to go to any lengths to do it.”

Noble and with a happy ending, yes, but for others in this situation, Estes urges restraint: “Once an addict, always an addict. If you’ve borrowed too much money or stole it, you have to do certain things to recover. That’s great. But debt repayment should not replace the first addiction for too long. You want to be in control.”

Prepare for the end, and a new beginning  
Submitting a final payment, for most borrowers, is a triumph – except for those who’ve made becoming debt-free their raison d’etre. “It can be anticlimactic,” says Selkowe. “Finding balance can be the hardest part, because living moderately is so foreign.”

Estes agrees. “There’s definitely a ‘what else can I conquer?’ issue for people who’ve dedicated so much to the process. They can become fixated on finding the next thing. You have to change your behavior. Learn what’s good and not good, know how to have a productive day and life without going overboard.”

For people starting to feel powerless, harmed or are neglecting loved ones and crucial tasks due to an overly aggressive debt repayment strategy, Estes says to contact a counselor specializing in addiction issues. Treatment is typically cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of short-term “talk” therapy that is focused on problem-solving.

The idea is to become aware of the obsession, then respond to the challenging situations effectively. “It’s used for any kind of behavior change,” says Estes. “I would ask, ‘What happens if you don't pay the debt? Will they send you to jail, take your house or car?’ We go from there. It’s usually very effective. One session should be enough to tell you if you’re on the right track.”

See related: Antidepressant use can spur spending sprees, Credit score obsession: 7 signs you have one

Published: July 19, 2016

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Updated: 10-28-2016

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