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Out from Under : With Aid of Debtors Anonymous, O.C. Consumers Pay the Piper

March 04, 1997|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Samantha pulled out her Mervyn's card, the only one that still had available credit. She needed a fix.

"I thought, OK, I have about $50 on the card, and if I can buy a dress for $30 or $40 and my card goes through, I'll have something new.

"It was like, OK, I'm an OK person. If this card goes through, it's not that bad that I have nothing to eat."

But it was that bad.

Samantha was not only hungry, but she was also homeless--and deeply in debt. The last thing she needed was more debt, but there was no stopping. "If I could spend money, it was as if I had money," she says.

Samantha's debts--with the help of a handful of wallet-sized plastic cards--mounted to $20,000 before she caught herself.

Today, at 30, she has a job as an elementary school teacher and health benefits for the first time in her adult life. She's slowly paying off what she owes, and creditors don't threaten anymore. On Feb. 1 she celebrated five years without once incurring unsecured debt or using plastic.

Joining Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step, self-help fellowship based on Alcoholics Anonymous, helped her turn things around, she says. Like other members of Debtors Anonymous in this story, Samantha follows group guidelines by using only her first name in the media.

"If I debt, I die," she tells fellow debtors at a meeting in Lake Forest, "because if I debt, it just spirals me down into being homeless again."

Like members of Alcoholics, Narcotics, Smokers, Gamblers and Overeaters Anonymous, compulsive debtors, as they call themselves, say they practice the destructive behavior to escape life's troubles.

Each week in mall-abundant Orange County, there are half a dozen DA meetings. In L.A., there are 50 a week. The Debtors Anonymous program is one of myriad groups spawned by AA, founded by two alcoholics more than 60 years ago to help those struggling with alcoholism help one another find "recovery."

Debtors Anonymous was started in New York in 1976, and there are now about 500 meeting groups worldwide. The first L.A. group met in 1982; a few years later, the first Orange County group was established.

Many of Samantha's fellow DA members are accountants, stockbrokers, tax attorneys, economics professors and financial advisors.

Ironic? These members explain that overspending has little if anything to do with dollars and sense.

Bernard, a financial advisor, racked up $90,000 in unsecured debt during the extravagant '80s, he says. Indeed, he never even missed a car or house payment, thanks to a lot of creative account juggling.

"While I obviously have the intellect and knowledge to know how not to have gotten into debt," he says, "I did."

Bernard, who has been attending Debtors Anonymous meetings for a year, has whittled his debts down by about $20,000 in the past year.

Joining DA was "a great relief," says Bernard, who despite his own problem says he has had a successful career as a financial advisor to others.

"Out there in everyday society, this is obviously something I can't talk about. Most people can't talk about it," he says.

*

No one really knows how many chronic overspenders there are among us, but it's well documented that more and more Americans are plunging deeper into debt.

In 1996, more than $1 trillion was charged to credit cards, with about a third of that being paid off in installments, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Most personal bankruptcy is brought about by heavy credit card and other consumer debt, according to bankruptcy lawyers.

Last year, the number of personal bankruptcy filings hit a record high of 1.1 million, according to government statisticians. That's up 26% from 1995, with the largest number of filers in California.

One study done at the University of Minnesota estimated that nationwide, nearly 5 million people, or 2% of the population, wrestle with overspending.

There are distinct types of overspenders, said Lewis R. Baxter, a UCLA psychiatry and pharmacology professor specializing in obsessive and compulsive disorders and depression.

Manic-depressives may spend wildly during manic periods and appear to revel in it, he says. Conversely, "true compulsives don't want to do it, but are driven--compelled--and have this horrible feeling if they don't."

People in a third group, which he calls "impulsive spenders," seem to get some sort of pleasure from the habit. They may feel remorse, but seem to forget all that and overspend again. "They will say, 'Well, just one more time,' " he says.

Although "there's a huge amount of data showing a biological underpinning" of certain forms of the behavior, more research is needed in that area, Baxter says.

Meanwhile, in addition to treating some patients with medication or behavior modification, he has sent many of his clients to DA.

Psychologist James Crossen, director and founder of the Addiction Studies Program of Los Angeles Mission College, also strongly recommends the Debtors Anonymous program to overspenders.

Messages in the media play a big role in sending people shopping, he says.

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