Hoarders: Buried in debt

Compulsive behavior overrides financial common sense

Hoarders: Buried in debtIt'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 disarray.

When compulsive shopping
becomes hoarding
Not everyone who hoards is a compulsive shopper, but many are. Think you might be? Frost offers a few clear markers:
  • 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.
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.

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 unravel."

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 get found."

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 in."

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.

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 the bills.
  • 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.
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 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

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Updated: 12-12-2017