When Kate lived in New York City, she used to shop every day.
If she went to shop for designer hand bags, she wouldn’t just buy one. She would buy three. If she went shopping for designer shoes, she would buy six pairs at a time.
In order to find room for her purchases, she used multiple storage units in various locations outside the city. In between seasons, she would take a car service to those spaces to switch out her wardrobe.
Kate’s spending didn’t end there. She would set costly goals – such as visiting all seven continents – and pursue them just to say she had completed them.
Kate, now 52, felt that she deserved the reward. She has a lucrative career in financial services and consistently earns a six-figure, occasionally seven-figure, salary.
“I could afford it, but it was excessive,” Kate said.
Kate reached a crisis point 12 years ago and turned to Debtors Anonymous. “This program saved my life,” she said.
Debtors Anonymous first started in the late 1960s when some members of Alcoholics Anonymous started holding separate meetings to discuss issues they were having with money.
Today, the group has more than 500 registered meetings in more than 15 countries.
During the time the organization has grown, personal debts in the U.S. have ballooned.
Student loan debt has reached a whopping $1.5 trillion , while credit card debt has also crossed the $1 trillion mark.
Total consumer debt such as credit cards, auto, personal and student loans – is projected to reach $4 trillion by the end of this year.
As people work to juggle those balances and strive to achieve a certain lifestyle, they can stretch beyond their means.
Anecdotally, those forces have helped send some members, who spoke to CNBC.com with the request that their identity be kept confidential, to the 12-step program.
And many of the impulses that drive them – projecting a certain status, achieving personal goals and seeking pleasure from material goods or experiences – are the same that affect many consumers.
“I came from a middle class family, but not a wealthy family, so I always felt like I didn’t have enough,” Kate said.
She worked to fill that void not just with clothes, bags and shoes, but also travel, education, experiences, spiritual pursuits, yoga and supplements.
“It’s a problem of feeling like you don’t have enough no matter how much you have and always looking for more,” she said.
Members of Debtors Anonymous can often be divided into two groups: those who overwork and those who underearn.
And their issues with money can manifest differently, whether they spend big, rack up huge debts or both.
What they often have in common is ambition and pursuit of a certain dream or status.
That was the case for Joan, 47, who got a master’s degree and threw herself into the pursuit of a singing career.
Joan took on debt to fund her graduate education. After school, she spent money on training, programs, pianists and directors.
The problems came when she was not making enough money to support herself.
That led to her depending on others – her parents, relatives and friends – for financial help.
Hitting rock bottom
As with other 12-step programs, it often takes a catastrophic moment for individuals to turn to Debtors Anonymous.
Joan first learned about Debtors Anonymous from actor’s support websites she would visit, where she would see an ad for the program.
That was 15 years ago. It took her eight years to walk into a meeting. She has been faithfully attending sessions for seven.
Remembering where she was before she joined the group gets her a little choked up, Joan said. “It reminds me of the pain I was in,” she said.
She could no longer access any more money on credit cards, which was a problem for her because she was using them to pay her living costs. The last card she took out was to pay her rent for the month. That year, she was also facing a big tax debt.
“I truly felt desperate, and I didn’t know what to do,” Joan said. “I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know where the money was coming from. And I had to feel so much shame and pain to be able to go ask for help.”
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Kate also had a similar crisis point, when she realized nothing was ever enough.
“I realized that all of this stuff wasn’t making me happier,” Kate said. “All the money that I made wasn’t making me happier.”
She also lied to her partner. If her boyfriend asked, “Oh, is that new?” Kate would say, “No, you never notice anything about me. You’re so self-centered.”
But the truth was the item he had asked about was new and she was lying. “I was the one who was self-centered,” Kate said.
Signs you have a problem
If you feel compelled to lie about your spending habits, that is a red flag you have a problem, according to Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding.
“Lying and deception often is a real thing with any type of addiction,” Shulman said.
Watch for other warning signs, such as avoiding credit card statements, or your loved ones expressing concern about your behavior.
“Take an honest look,” Shulman said. “Are you spending more time, more energy, more money? Any of those are problematic.”
Debtors Anonymous provides a series of 15 questions to assess whether you are a compulsive debtor. If you answer affirmatively to at least eight of those questions – which include whether your debts distract you from your daily life or have impacted your family’s welfare – chances are you have a problem.
Working toward recovery
Kate said her life today is unrecognizable compared to how she lived before.
One by one, she got rid of her storage units. And for the past 10 years, she has worn the same dress to every wedding she attended. Prior to Debtors Anonymous, she said she would have had three suitcases with three or four changes of clothes and shoes for each event.
But the main difference has been the spiritual transformation she has undergone, she said.
“I don’t need new stuff all the time anymore,” Kate said. “It’s not about more, more, more. I am so grateful for what I have, and I’m so grateful that I don’t need more.”
Joan has also made dramatic life changes in the past seven years.
She still consults with her sponsor or another member of the program before she makes any purchase.
And she has also taken responsibility for her financial life.
Joan closed all of her credit cards and now only uses a debit card.
She made a career change and now works as an administrative assistant. The job provides the benefits she needs and enables her to pursue her singing on the side.
Getting control of her spending has helped her to be a better daughter, sister, friend and significant other now that she pays her own way.
“Everybody in my life who’s close to me knows about all of that,” Joan said. “Everyone has seen this dramatic change in my life.”
*Names have been changed to protect their anonymity.