Kiwis will shell out a record $17 billion this festive season. Paul Little went to Debtors Anonymous to meet those battling an addiction to spending — and those trying to help.

In a no-frills hall in Herne Bay, a handful of people have assembled. One stands up to speak: "Hi, I'm Suzy and I'm a debt addict …"

Most of us are familiar with the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and even Gamblers Anonymous, but Debtors Anonymous is less well known.

Can you even be addicted to debt? Members of DA have come up with a new verb to describe their money problem: "debting", by which they mean incurring unsecured debt.

In reality, their habit is a complex mix of compulsive shopping and other behaviours that lead to difficulties typical of addiction in general.

Advertisement

Associate Professor Simon Adamson, a Christchurch-based clinical psychologist with the national Addiction Centre, says addictions all focus on something that gives intense pleasure with delayed costs.

"When people are focused on the immediacy of things and don't have a longer-term view, they can do things that are not in their best interests," Adamson says.

Buy now, pay later.

Debt addicts are fighting not only their own inner demons, but powerful external pressures. It has never been easier to shop compulsively. A lot of money is spent encouraging people to spend, not just to get more stuff, but to get more credit to get even more stuff.

This leads to a cycle of getting into debt and incurring more debt to pay off the original debt.

And it's getting harder for even good money managers to avoid the traps.

"Taking on debt is normalised, not just for large material items like a house or a car," wrote Dr M. Claire Dale in a 2014 report for the Child Poverty Action Group.

"It is now normal to take on debt to pay for tertiary education … few people do not have credit cards either from a bank or a retailer, and fewer people pay off the balance monthly … Families borrowing from loan sharks who charge excessive interest rates are often forced into an unmanageable and -endless cycle of debt."

If it's that bad for people struggling to cover the basics, all these factors are exacerbated for those struggling with a compulsion to shop.
A Stanford University study in 2006 concluded "compulsive overspending or over-shopping" is a legitimate disorder that affects about six per cent of the population.

You can quibble over how this may or may not tip over into clinically defined addiction, but it's clear those at Debtors Anonymous meetings have a lot in common with AA and NA members.

They're often the same people — a large number of DA members are also in long-term recovery and in one or both of the other groups.

'I've been in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs since 1987," says Auckland DA member Suzy, 69*.

"I learned addiction is not about the drug; it's about behaviour. Addiction doesn't give a shit what it's addicted to, as long as there's something going on."

And debt addiction is not a matter of not having enough money.

"Coming into recovery," says Suzy, "I was on a benefit and I always thought when I got a real job and started earning a reasonable amount of money I'd be able to live within my means and support my two daughters."

That didn't happen.

"I trained as a social worker and counsellor and started working in the addiction sector. I was getting a reasonable step up each year.

"But no matter how much I was earning, I spent a bit more.

"I felt uneasy and had a lot of shame around it, and that kept me in a place of guilt and shame, anxiety, fear and disconnection."

You don't end up at Debtors Anonymous because you're short of money or even bad with money, but because you have a bad relationship with money.

In fact, here and overseas, Debtors Anonymous itself has not done a great job of managing its own finances, which has hindered its growth.

And, says Suzy, "we even have people who have been accountants and good with other people's money but don't have the right emotional relationship with their own".
Debt addiction shares with substance addiction, "the mood alteration — the high and then the low," often followed by sobering-up shame.

"I didn't need another black dress and I didn't want people to know I'd bought it so I'd put it in the wardrobe and not wear it because when I saw or wore it I had a twinge of shame or guilt."

Impression management is another behaviour common across addictions.

"When you're in active addiction," says Suzy, "there is all that time and energy spent on getting the drug, then more energy spent trying to make it look like I hadn't used in the first place. The double life is going on all the time. The debting thing was also a double life. On the outside, I was doing well — on the inside I didn't want people to know I wasn't able to manage money."

Suzy went to her first meeting with her friend Reagan, 64*, also an NA member. They used to go compulsive shopping together and recognised they had a problem with money as well as their other addictions.

"This was about seven years ago. We'd done a self-help book called Money Drunk by Julia Cameron," says Reagan. "It said to see if there was a DA meeting in your area. Off we went and came to this cold, horrible church hall. We sat there for an hour feeling sorry for ourselves but decided to give it a go."

And that worked.

"It's very similar to AA," says Suzy. "It is even suggested that people read [AA bible] the Big Book first.

"We open with a serenity prayer and a moment's silence. People go around the room: 'Hi, I'm whatever your name is. I'm a debt addict.' People share their stories with first names only and so on."

You might expect that a clinical psychologist who does a lot of behavioural therapy would be sceptical, but Adamson has an open mind on the value of DA.

"The 12 steps model can be quite rigid and it doesn't fit some individuals," he says.

"But the advice I always give around meetings is to give it a go, make use of things you find useful and ignore the rest. The positives with 12 steps are that there is a lot that is gained from the mutual support of people going through the process and the chance to hear them describing it, to speak about it without being judged."

As with AA and NA, members are likely to seek out meetings to attend in other cities when they go travelling. They also have to change their relationships with former partners in shopping. "You spur each other on easily," says Reagan. "It's just like 'have another drink'."

She says rather than walk with friends down Ponsonby Rd now, she'll meet them for a coffee or go to the beach.

Like most addictions the problems with money involve many factors.

"For some people it's the in-shop experience," says Adamson. "When you're buying things you're important to staff. They're your friends. If someone's lonely that can be important. Comfort buying, like comfort eating, is a way to lift your mood."

Which is probably why it's called retail therapy.

Partners can make the problem worse.

"I was always with guys who were the people with the money so I couldn't be myself," says Suzy. "I was debting it to be whoever they wanted me to be. Debting keeps you in a place of disconnection."

Other addictions can add to the complications. "I was an addict for a lot of my child's early growing up," says Reagan.

She had taken on $120,000 worth of revolving credit when she borrowed to develop a property.

The money would be repaid when the property was sold and she would make a profit.
"Having been a solo mum on the DPB for 16-17 years and suddenly having this huge amount of money I had no idea how to manage it. I tarted shouting myself and my son."

She went through the credit long before the property was ready to be sold. "When I went to DA, I learned I was trying to use the money to buy my son's love back for the lost years," says Reagan.

"Once I put my finger on that I eased off. Today I have no debt, a prudent reserve and a retirement scheme. Seven years ago, I had none of those things. The recovery is quite quick if you put your mind to it."

DA obviously doesn't pay people's bills for them or we'd all go — so how does it help?
"The first thing it teaches you to do is cop to the debt," says Suzy.

"We don't even know when we come in the door how much we owe or have in the bank. I used to be at the checkout with my eftpos card sometimes feeling sick because I wasn't sure how much I had and if it was going to cover it."

Then you work out your income and what you owe and a repayment plan that leaves you enough to have a life. It's not about deprivation.

Members contact their creditors and arrange repayment.

"You want to get to a place where you're not scared to answer the phone or open mail," says Suzy.

There are alternatives, including the numerous budgeting services.

"They serve a need, I'm sure," says Suzy. "But there's no behaviour change. When every last penny has been accounted for, it would be very easy for someone like me to think 'I'm doing well' and then have a blowout."

Reagan's impression of budgeting services is that they're "about how you've been really naughty and we're going to take away your treats".

"DA tends not to judge or say you're not allowed to spend on coffee anymore."

In other words, go ahead and have another avocado — it won't be the end of the world.
"Things get easier," says Suzy.

"But that doesn't mean the urge to debt isn't with us. That's why it's important to keep going to meetings and be reminded.

"The default is to debt, so it's learning a new way to live. It's like NA and learning to live without using."

Getting straight can be strange at first.

"The feeling of having enough money to do things is lovely," says Reagan.
"But you've got this addict's thing of 'Why is everything so still and quiet?' It's because there's nothing I have to fix. I've grown used to that now."

• Names have been changed.

Where credit's due

Credit cards are the irresistible bait in the debt trap — so attractive and potentially lethal.

"When I got a job and became a respectable member of society I got a credit card," says Suzy. "So I started using that and I racked up debt on the card, although it wasn't major. Once or twice when I got a small inheritance, I would pay it all off then I'd feel free."

But she was in a cycle, she says, of "buy, max it out, pay a chunk off, blessed relief, spend it, max it, pay it, relief, buy more shit and so on …"

She hasn't had a card for several years and it hasn't been easy.

Getting rid of the card, that is.

"The bank didn't want to do it for me. The teller said, 'I need to ask you a reason.' I said, 'I can't be trusted with a credit card.'

"She was cutting it in half and looked at me and said, 'I'm the same'. "

Suzy says she has learned to live well without a credit card.

"When I go on holiday now, I pay in cash. That might not seem like a big deal, but I used to go on holidays using the card and still be paying that nine months later. The total would get all mixed up with the other stuff I'd put on the card and that takes the joy out of it."