An aspiring clinical psychologist says she may be helping to identify and treat a growing American ailment--overspending.
Nancy Liela Wallace, who is doing her internship at the Westminster Center for Personal Development in Pasadena, theorizes that overspending just might be an addiction and therefore subject to treatment.
Wallace has studied addictions at International College in Westwood, where she is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. In the three years she has worked as a counselor, overspending has emerged as a serious problem for about 25 of her clients, she said.
Wallace, who admits to having been an occasional binge-buyer herself, has formed a self-help group for "spendaholics," which she hopes will provide further evidence that overspending can be treated clinically. Meetings are held at the Westminster Center; fees are based on a client's ability to pay.
The idea of offering psychological help for compulsive spenders is relatively new. An informal Times survey of psychologists and credit counselors identified only one similar program, a San Francisco-based project founded by a woman who says overspending helped land her in prison.
In interviews, several therapists and family counselors said compulsive spending has been appearing with increasing frequency among their clients. Many viewed overspending as addictive, and they lauded efforts to find solutions to what they termed a potentially large-scale social problem.
Sandi Gostin, founder of the San Francisco program, got the idea for her group while serving a one-year term in the Women's Correctional Facility at Frontera. She said she was convicted in 1976 on charges of embezzlement and went to prison in 1983 for violating parole.
After telling her story of destructive, uncontrolled spending on several Bay Area television and radio talk shows and in newspaper interviews, Gostin said she was contacted by at least 500 people who wanted to discuss their own spending problems.
The result was $pendMender$, a nonprofit organization for compulsive spenders. The groups she founded in San Francisco and Lafayette attract from 10 to 50 people each week. They pay Gostin $5 to attend each session, she said.
Wallace and Gostin have not met or even heard of each other, but their findings have many similarities.
Both have concluded, for instance, that overspending usually comes in the guise of some other problem and that compulsive spenders frequently have difficulty with relationships, work, drug dependency or excessive drinking or eating. They may feel out of control, that money governs them the same way alcohol and drugs control other addicts, the group leaders said.
Many overspenders also tell of hiding secrets: shoplifting, falsifying documents, bouncing checks and of being hounded by creditors, Wallace and Gostin said.
Both also contend that overspenders often are bright, educated, successful, upwardly mobile people who present a curious dilemma to those who work with them: They are often so far in debt they look at counseling as a luxury they can't afford and go on spending and increasing their feelings of powerlessness.
They all suffer from low self-esteem, behavioral scientists agree. However, even within this framework spenders express a wide range of feelings and ways they handle them.
Some spender personalities Wallace has identified are:
--The superperson, who feels compelled to do, support and provide for others; the savior of all who are in financial need.
--The Cinderella who clings to youth by believing Prince Charming will appear to save her from financial ruin.
--The adolescent whose rebellion never ends, demonstrating that he or she can't be told what to do with money.
--The undeserving who must get rid of money fast in order to get on with being poor. Some in this group are burdened with images of their suffering poor parents.
More typical, she said, are:
--Binge buyers who spend to relieve subconscious anxiety.
--Status seekers who need confirmation of their worth from their peers.
--Fearful people who keep their partners insolvent as a way of holding onto them.
There are others as well.
"If you could get (all the varieties of overspenders) to clasp hands, they'd stretch mall to mall between here and San Diego," said Richard Hogan, a founder of Psychological Services Group in Cerritos.
Hogan, a clinical psychologist for 30 years and author of a text on psychotherapy, said overspending surfaces as a secondary issue among some of the 200 clients he sees during an average year.
Clients, Hogan said, "use overspending as an acceptable coping device and they're not self-critical about that. They don't see this as a problem that is serious in their life style, and it stays in the closet for a long time."