"Hi. I'm Tom, and I'm a compulsive spender." So begins a recent gathering of Debtors Anonymous, a support group for those addicted to overspending.
Every week, in the fellowship room of a Sacramento church, Kevin and about 25 other self-described overspenders and compulsive debtors seek help from others battling the same addiction.
DA, as it's known to its faithful, is a 12-step program for recovery from chronic debt, patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. And like AA, none of its participants use their last names. (To protect their anonymity in this story, their real first names are not used.)
With no fees or dues, DA offers group sessions, dial-in meetings, phone mentoring and live online groups. And though DA doesn't work for everyone, its adherents call it a salvation.
The voluntary organization of 513 U.S. and overseas groups does no advertising. And despite a recession that's clobbered many consumers, neither local DA members nor its Boston-area headquarters report any big increase in membership.
Michael, a retired data-processing manager, said he started attending weekly DA sessions in 1995 after hitting a financial wall.
With $26,000 in debt, he'd maxed out six to eight credit cards, reached the limit on his bank's credit lines, refinanced his house multiple times and tapped his parents and in-laws for loans. Yet from outward appearances, his life seemed normal: married with two sons, a house and a steady state paycheck.
But like many chronic debtors, Michael said he never had a clear idea of how much he was spending.
"I wasn't a compulsive shopper or an under-earner. But I used credit cards to live on," he said. "Everything was an emergency: taking a vacation, car registration, repairs on the house, kids' clothes."
That's a common trait. In DA, the first step to recovery is basic: tracking all spending for 90 days.
At the end of three months, a new DA member is paired with two veterans who help devise a spending plan. The new member learns how to set aside funds for predictable expenses, like car insurance or mortgage payments, and bigger goals like vacations or college.
DA also helps keep compulsive spending in check. Janice, a 19-year member, said she once had 21 credit cards and would cure herself of "a bad day" at work by dropping $200 at department-store jewelry counters.
Today, she lives free of credit cards, but when the urge to spend arises, Janice calls her designated DA mentors.
"It's not about the money. It's about getting support, thinking things through and establishing your needs and wants," she said.
Learning to live without relying on unsecured debt, such as credit cards, is a tenet of DA.
DA can be a lifesaver, if done right, say consumer finance experts.
"It definitely has a place for some folks," said Brent Neiser, a program director with the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Others say DA works best in tandem with professional credit counseling.
"I don't hesitate to refer people to DA who are looking for some place to feel they're not alone," said Bruce McClary, spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions.
"If you do both, it's the total package," McClary said.
But like an alcoholic coming to grips with drinking, dealing with chronic debt is hard work. Many drop out of DA, say long-timers.
"It's harder than alcohol," said Janice, "because you can't live without money."
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services