One Dollar at a Time

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Jesse Kuhn /

In modest church basements and community rec rooms across the nation, thousands of people are tackling the international credit crunch one day, one dollar, and one life at a time. And they’re doing it by applying the 12-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to their financial problems.

Given that the program’s very first step simply requires admitting powerlessness over the addiction, it’s a good guess that more than a few of us could stand up and testify. In 2008 Americans had racked up an unprecedented amount of revolving debt to finance their spending habits. Then the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy and, over the past two years–in large part because panicky usurers began to choke off credit to unworthy borrowers–the amount of revolving debt (principally on charge cards) has plummeted by nearly $160 billion, according to the Federal Reserve.

As real jobless rates remain in the double digits and corporations crawl slowly from the wreckage, more Americans are also resolving to cut up their Visa cards and attempt to live within their means. But, just like dropping weight or picking up good exercise habits, changing spending habits is a daunting task–which is why a wealth of programs, counseling services, and how-to books exist to coach consumers out of indebtedness. Debtors Anonymous, or DA, ups the self-help ante by forcing folks to approach their goals out loud, so making excuses or stalling is harder to pull off. 

“The members of DA are not unified by a common addiction, such as an addiction to compulsive shopping,” writes Seth Michael Donsky in the New York Press (Oct. 20-26, 2010). Instead, they share “a commitment to living debt free.”

Donsky traces the genesis of DA, first called “the Penny Pinchers,” to the late ’60s, when a group of recovering alcoholics in New York City started getting together to talk about money troubles. The concept has spread to more than 40 states and 18 countries, with 500 registered DA groups worldwide.

Debtors tend to suffer from “a state of shame and embarrassment” and “fear of being judged or belittled,” Donsky writes. In many cases, the perceived indignity can lead to anger or denial or both, and delay people from taking action.

DA turns this psychological reaction on its head. Fellow debtors come to learn that resentment and low self-esteem are not the result of money woes; it’s the other way around. “The problems start when one tries to cover up shame or acts unconsciously with money, looking to get unmet needs satisfied,” financial counselor Helen Kim tells Donsky.

“What finally brings people into Debtors Anonymous is the same as it has always been: not having enough money, honey,” one 13-year veteran of the program tells the New York Press. “That’s why everybody comes. What they discover, if they stay, is that it isn’t about the money. It’s about the emotional anxiety underneath, and because that anxiety has manifested as financial problems, they have been too ashamed to talk about it or to ask for help.”

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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