Q: I have an okay income, but I’m now so far in debt that I’m in real trouble. Last Christmas I spent so much money on my friends that I’m now maxed out on my credit cards and can’t even keep up with the minimum payments. I’ll put myself on a pretty austere budget and keep to it for a few weeks. Then I’ll get resentful about the restrictions, and say ‘I have the right to have a life, too,’ and start spending again. I’m now so far into debt that bankruptcy is a real possibility. Why do people get addicted to spending, and how can I get over it?
A: To begin to understand the many reasons that people develop the compulsion to spend, just consider the many symbolic meanings that we give to money:
To be able to buy expensive Christmas presents for your friends means that you’re generous. It means that you’re affluent, successful, and powerful. The easy availability of credit makes it possible for anyone to look and act wealthy and privileged – at least for a while. Money represents safety and security. Some people, when they’re feeling anxious or threatened, go on a spending spree in order to feel safer. Money represents love and care: spending money on your friends shows you love them. It represents self-worth: when people are feeling neglected or lonely, buying themselves gifts can feel temporarily soothe wounded self-esteem.
Creating financial problems can also have many symbolic meanings. It can be a deliberate, if unconscious, act of self-punishment. Money worries make us feel threatened, out of control, diminished, and ashamed. Creating such pain is sometimes a way of atoning for guilt feelings. It may be a way of making sure that you’re not happier or more at ease than you ‘deserve.’ Sometimes creating money problems is a way of maintaining dependency relationships with parents or relatives. Some adult men and women remain tied to their parents through a cycle of spending binges and family bail-outs. In other cases, creating money problems can be a way of atoning for the ‘crime’ of being better off financially than one’s parents. I’ve noticed that some people who are doing well financially but who come from backgrounds of poverty feel compelled to sabotage their success because of unconscious guilt over doing better than their parents.
But the immediate practical problem you’re facing is how to get some control over the symptom. You’re probably already aware of the steps you need to take: make a commitment to live within your means; stop buying on credit; maybe see a credit counselor; get rid of your credit cards, etc. Maybe you’ve already tried some or all of these things. The trouble with compulsive spending, as with any compulsion, is that once you stop acting on the compulsion, the underlying unmet needs come bubbling to the surface, sometimes resulting in depression, anxiety, moodiness, etc. This can feel very discouraging because it seems as if taking better care of yourself only makes things worse. Good psychotherapy can intervene at this point to help you identify and understand the real needs you’ve been meeting only symbolically. It can give you the insight and the support you need not to return to old and destructive patterns.
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of trying to resolve the problem completely on their own. A resource which you might find very helpful is the program of Debtor’s Anonymous. This program has adapted the twelve steps of AA to the special needs of people who have problems with compulsive debting. What I admire about this program is that it’s a very practical, hands-on approach. Other members will sit down with you and help you draw up a realistic spending plan and a strategy for meeting your financial obligations which will allow you to have a life while you’re paying off your debts. They’ll give you the support you need and help you address your real needs in more productive ways.