Harvest House Publishers
A tall, striking woman appeared in the doorway behind me at a weekly support meeting. She paused for a moment, then found a place at the table directly across from me. I had not seen her before, so I assumed she was new.
“I’m Audrey,” she said in a loud whisper. The man next to her shook her hand and said, “Welcome.”
I was drawn to Audrey from the moment I saw her. So were the men in the room! I guessed her to be about my age at the time—fiftyish. She had style and grace, like a beautiful willow. I even admired the way she eased herself into the straight-backed chair. Her movements were as fluid as a summer breeze.
Her straight chestnut-colored hair, drawn back, exposed a beautiful face. Her full lips glistened with just the right shade of lipstick, and her cheeks were highlighted with a brush of red, the perfect touch beneath large, deep-brown eyes.
The thin gold chain around her neck, an array of slender bracelets on her left arm, and enormous hoop earrings set off the simple creamcolored silk blouse she wore. It all works, I thought to myself. Here’s a lady who knows how to put herself together.
My mind wandered for a moment. A model. I bet she’s a model for Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, I told myself. Then what’s she doing here? At a meeting for people with money problems? She looks like she could buy and sell whatever she wanted.
I hoped she’d tell her story.
As the hour went on and various people shared their experiences and feelings, I noticed Audrey’s eyes mist on several occasions. She pulled out a handkerchief, dabbed the corners of her eyes, shifted nervously in her chair, and then folded and unfolded her hands on the table in front of her. The bright-red polish on her impeccably manicured nails created a pleasing contrast to her fair skin.
Suddenly she was speaking. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say. “I’m Audrey.” She introduced herself, blinking back tears. “I’m in trouble with money. I don’t know a thing about how to manage it. I feel like a child,” she said softly, “yet I’m 52 years old. I’m divorced. I have three grown children. I was married to a prominent corporate attorney in Great Neck, Long Island—that’s in New York,” she added, perhaps assuming Californians might not know the location.
“And I’m $30,000 in debt.” She lowered her head as a young girl might after making a true confession. “I don’t know how it happened. Actually, I never had enough money after the divorce. I was always behind. It was easy to use my credit cards,” she added. “The banks make them so appealing.” A faint smile crossed her lips.
“My husband and I had been married for 25 years. We were comfortable, or so I thought. We had everything—the cars, the club, the clothes, a home in the city and a summer place in Montauk.
“Then he met someone playing golf, and that was the beginning of the end. It was as if he had been waiting for an excuse to leave me.”
Suddenly Audrey broke down. She sobbed softly at first, and then everyone in the room probably heard her. I choked back my own tears. This was my story, almost word for word. It was about a different town and a different husband, but the details were nearly the same.
She had been raised in a family much like my own. A solid Midwestern family with solid values. We went to church. We took family vacations. We entertained family and friends. We had a good, comfortable life. We even spent part of one summer on Montauk Point.
Like Audrey, I attended a small Christian college for women, graduated, married a law student, struggled through the bar exam with him, had three babies in five years, and woke up 20 years later realizing my husband was having an affair. Soon after, we were divorced and I was alone with my children, frightened and overwhelmed with broken relationships, a devastated self-image, and no sense of how to handle, spend, invest, or deal with money. I was a child in a 41-year-old body.
I wanted to put my arms around Audrey, give her a hug, and let her know we’re all in this together. But that would come later. For now I knew she needed to cry, to let out the grief and shame—the terrible secret shame we feel as women when we’re finally willing to admit that we are alone, scared, and penniless…that we fear ending up on the street or stuck in a spare room in someone else’s home. The shame of driving a 12-year-old car when all our adult lives we’ve had a new car every two years. The pain of watching friends’ marriages weather the storms of affairs and graduate school and sick kids and aging parents, knowing ours didn’t make it. Believing that somehow we aren’t enough—not pretty enough, thin enough, sexy enough, patient enough. Deep in our guts we honestly believe we’re defective in some way that can never be fixed.
Audrey’s soft voice startled me out of my thoughts.“I have seven charge cards,” she said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to survive. I’ve never had a real career. I considered modeling when I was younger, but then I married, and the children came, and—well you know the story,” she said, looking around the room.
“I have almost nothing to show for the divorce. I netted about $100,000, but I went through that in three years. I tried to make wise decisions. I talked to people and invested in some land. But it’s gone. Every penny is gone.
“I’m working at Nordstrom now. I moved here last year after my last son was married. I decided it was time for a change…time to think of myself, though I’m not very good at that.
“I worked at Macy’s when I was in high school, so selling women’s clothing seemed like something I could do. I made $25,000 last year, and I have $5,000 more than that in debt! A friend of mine figured out that at 20 percent annually, I owe $500 a month in interest alone. That’s exactly my share of the rent where I’m living.”Debt Trap
“If you didn’t have your credit-card payment of $218 a month, and you instead invested that money in a 12 percent savings plan, in 25 years you could retire with $1,354,930 in the bank. So your credit-card payments not only will cost you thousands in interest, but also prohibit many Americans from adequately saving for their retirement.”
For people with such high debt compared to their income and assets, bankruptcy often seems to be the only option. And many take that route. But those in 12-step recovery groups, such as Debtors Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous (based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous), and other solvency programs have discovered that “debting” is an emotional disease much like alcoholism, overeating, and drug abuse. It is a disease that, without help, never gets better. In fact, it gets worse over time. Bankruptcy simply delays the inevitable unless a person takes steps to recover.
Bankruptcy doesn’t work because being in debt is not really a money issue. It is an issue of self-worth and our feelings of not being enough. Women in debt try to fill the emptiness inside by spending money on themselves or others.
Audrey and I—and every other woman I know who is in debt— struggle with the same basic issue—a poor self-image. The emotional hole in each one of us is so big you could drive a truck through it. New clothes, a new car, or a new relationship won’t fill it. Spurts of generous giving to others won’t fill it either.
When these things don’t work, many of us go to the other extreme. We become misers, hoarding our money, denying ourselves even basic clothing, nourishing food, adequate housing. And when that doesn’t work either, some women in debt consider suicide. Rhonda said, “One year I was so despondent over my credit-card bills that I told myself if I couldn’t get a handle on them before the end of the year, I’d just end it. Then I found Debtors Anonymous, and through the program I learned to surrender to a power greater than myself—God—and that was the turning point for me.”
The steps to change are not set in stone. You may wish to map out your own plan based on what you read here. But the point is women who surrender their will to God, then plan and take action, do get well. It’s that simple—and that challenging.
Depending on when and where you were raised, you have absorbed “lessons” about money. Women currently in their 20s and 30s have been brought up in a culture that proclaims, “You can have it if you want it” and “You deserve it.” This creates a me-centered viewpoint. It is difficult for such a woman to delay gratification. A new SUV or sportscar she can pay for “on time” is more attractive than a modest used car she can afford. The $100 pair of designer jeans is a must-have regardless of the fact that it might take 20 percent of the spender’s gross weekly income.
If you are over 40, you too, have learned your lessons well. The very traits that may have contributed to your trouble with money in the first place—self-denial and loyalty in the extreme plus unrealistic submission and service—are often those admired as feminine and nurturing. But they can also be confused with true “other-centeredness,” which is the biblical principle that Jesus modeled perfectly. He cared for others, but he never interfered with their ability to make decisions for themselves. He offered friendship and hospitality and loving support, but he didn’t force them to follow him. If he was turned down, he moved on. He did not give in order to get or take care of in order to feel better about himself.
This is an important distinction to make. When we support and stand with another person, we are energized and they are empowered to make wise choices. But if we push, pull, and prod, the strain wears down both people, and we are more likely then to spend, gamble, charge, or hoard in a desperate attempt to give ourselves something—anything—to avoid reality.
Like Audrey, you did not suddenly become crazy around money. Neither did I. The problem started years ago when we were growing up. How we got that way and what we can do about it is the subject of this book. But first I want to introduce another woman, someone quite different from Audrey and me—and yet a woman exactly the same in many ways.The Clean Scene: Kathleen’s Story
Kathleen’s eyes filled up as she shared her story. “Last week it really hit me. I was standing on a ladder washing my apartment windows. All of a sudden I realized what I was doing. This was my fourth apartment in three years, and I’d scrubbed every one of them. I have a cleaning fetish,” she added, laughing nervously.“It probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
“I believe it started the summer I turned ten. Until that year, my family lived on a small two-acre chicken farm in the Midwest. Then we lost everything. I’m still not sure how or why. It’s one of those family secrets that no one talks about. Anyway, my dad was so devastated when the farm went under that he couldn’t work for months. We moved to a small rented house in town. Then a friend of his offered him a part-time job washing windows and cleaning offices at night and on weekends. He continued that job till I was out of high school.”
Kathleen pushed up the sleeves of her denim shirt, ran a hand through her short hair, and sighed deeply. “That particular summer I remember my father telling me I was old enough to help him wash windows. He said he could use a helper but didn’t have enough money to hire someone. He thought I’d be a great window washer. I felt special standing beside him—he on one ladder and I on another. He even took me to the store with him to buy the supplies.
“After that, whenever my dad had more work than he could do by himself, I got to help. In fact, those are the only times I remember spending any time with him.” Kathleen laughed, sniffed back the tears, and nervously wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“He didn’t believe in socializing,” she continued. “ ‘Waste of time,’ he used to say. And he had a rule about money after we lost the farm. I’ll never forget it. Money is for ‘necessaries,’ he said. And dancing lessons or pretty clothes or eating out definitely were not on that list.
“One of his most often-repeated statements was,‘We don’t have money for that.’ Yet there had been plenty of money for paint and lumber and chicken feed when we lived on the farm and for his cleaning supplies and his truck in town—important things that would last, he said. So my mother and I shopped garage sales and thrift stores for clothes. In my whole childhood I don’t think I ever had an article of clothing that cost more than a dollar or two, and never ever something new.”
Kathleen doodled on a piece of paper as she talked. “Cleaning, fixing things up—it’s all I know. That’s hard to face. As I stood on the ladder washing the windows, it was like I was ten years old all over again. I wondered if my dad would approve. He’s been dead for five years, but I’ve gone right on washing windows, wanting him to be proud of me.”
Her voice escalated for a moment, then mellowed. “I even got a thrill out of buying a new bucket and new blades and a can of paint. I raced through the hardware store like most women run through Macy’s or Mervyn’s. I put $200 worth of stuff on my Visa card in less than an hour. “Necessaries,” she said with a laugh. “All of it for an apartment that I rent. Who knows how long I’ll live there? And yet I went into debt again so I could clean. And I have never ever spent $200 on myself at one time. Never!”
Silence settled over the room like a blanket. Women around the table were beginning to see and hear themselves in Kathleen’s story.
“Even my clothes are the same. These jeans are eight years old. Got ’em at a garage sale. Fifty cents! The same with shoes and shirts. I own two dresses. I got both of them at a thrift shop. I’m 34 years old, but I’m still living like that 10-year-old kid, terrified to spend money on myself, yet up to my ears in debt for ‘necessaries’ like my truck. Can you believe that? I drive a truck, just like my dad did.”
Audrey and Kathleen, like millions of other women, grew up in families where money was used to manipulate and control, to alter moods, to rescue, to reinforce certain kinds of behavior. As adults, such women find themselves using money in the same destructive way—building debts by indulging in things they neither need nor really want. Nor can they afford them.
Or they find themselves in the opposite camp, terrified to spend money for fear of unleashing its power over them. Still others go into debt by rescuing someone else. They buy into every hard-luck story they hear, financing a car for a teenage son, taking out a second mortgage on a home to help a boyfriend pay off his consumer debts, allowing a divorced friend to move in rent-free.
Before we can fully appreciate and understand the underpinnings of this
compulsive behavior, however, I think it would be helpful to look at several
ways we can define debt.
Any time you pledge a piece of property—a computer, a life insurance policy, jewelry, real estate, stock certificate—as collateral for a sum of money you borrow, you have entered into a secured loan—not secured for you, but for the lender. And you risk losing that security. Technically you could say that a secured loan is not really a debt since the item or property of equal value keeps you accountable for repayment. But for women with compulsive behavior around money, even a secured loan can be a powerful and destructive tool.
On the surface, it may seem perfectly in order to purchase a car or a piece of office equipment on an installment plan. However, such a loan also feeds into the cycle of debt many women are trying to break. And in the event they cannot keep up the payments, the car or equipment is repossessed, fueling the self-hatred and helplessness that provoked going into debt in the first place. In my experience, a woman is better off paying cash or doing without until she has embarked on a disciplined program of recovery.
Unsecured loans are another matter. Groceries, clothing, cosmetics, restaurant dining, gas for your car, theater tickets, and other items you charge on your MasterCard, Visa, American Express, or Diners Club accounts are not tied to collateral. Neither are spontaneous loans ($50 till payday, $10 for a pizza) made between family and friends.
Unsecured debt is where we get into the most trouble. We have bought the lie “buy now; pay later.” And we do pay in more ways than one, which brings up the emotional side of debt, where we spend or borrow or loan money without regard for our well-being.
This behavior is usually compulsive, meaning we don’t think about it rationally or consciously. We act this way to avoid unpleasant feelings of pain, fear, and grief. We can’t stop no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we know. Spending, in whatever form, takes the place of feeling the authentic emotion.
Most debt, secured or unsecured, is self-debt. When we use goods and services without paying for them immediately, we not only take from the creditor, but we also take from ourselves. Self-worth, integrity, and personal responsibility fall as we depend on others to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves—pay as we go.
The reverse is also true. When we take from ourselves to do for others what they can and should do for themselves, we go into self-debt. When we rescue or help boyfriends, husbands, and adult children capable of earning, we rob them of the opportunity to work through their own problems, to discover their own resources. And in the process, we steal from ourselves—money, time, energy, goods, or services that are necessary to our own survival and well-being.
Our motives often go back to childhood. We spend, borrow, or loan money in order to feel better about ourselves, to gain the attention, affection, and approval that we missed out on while growing up. We help capable adult friends with mortgage and car payments. We turn over our gas cards to teenage children. We charge a new suit on our Visa card for our boyfriend or mate so he can interview for a job. We buy our parents hundred-dollar gifts when our budget or spending plan clearly prohibits such extravagance.
On the outside our motives may appear generous, even loving. On the inside, however, we know differently. Giving to, taking care of, and providing for others raises our self-image and alters our mood. We are actually giving in order to get—to get that good feeling, to get the approval and affection of someone else, to get out of an unpleasant mood.
I remember two months in a row when my husband and I received financial aid from the Deacon’s Fund at our church in order to pay our rent. I was humiliated. I had always prided myself on giving to the fund for the needy. I never anticipated being a recipient. That experience showed me how resistant I was to being vulnerable. I was much more comfortable and in control as the giver.
This experience also showed me an important difference between a woman who gives “no strings attached” and the type of woman who gives in order to get something for herself. Those who give because they cannot risk being vulnerable are compelled to give. Compulsive giving creates a sense of power and authority. Such women must give. Some of them believe, as I did, that it is the right thing to do. Others don’t even think about it to that extent. They do it quite simply because, at some level, they have to. They charge, loan, spend, borrow, give, take, hoard, lose, or gamble time and again. And then they wonder where all their money went, why there never seems to be enough, why they seemingly are never enough.
Debt—no matter how you define it or speak about it or use it—is real. Being in debt is a serious condition. It should never be taken lightly. It has the potential to destroy everyone and everything important to you—family, jobs, friends, your marriage, even your health, as millions of women in debt can attest to.
Such women, by their own admission, use debt to manipulate their own and other people’s lives, to cover up their feelings, to punish or reward themselves, to help or hold hostage family and friends. To a woman who feels unhealthy around money, any reason will do. You may be one of them. If you are, you may recognize in yourself some or all of the following characteristics that seem to be present in the lives of such women.
1. Typically, you grew up in an emotionally distant home.
You did not see honest displays of anger, joy, sadness, love, or grief. Perhaps you were quieted down when you became excited, or you were told to “cool it,” or to consider others, or not to make noise or show your temper. You may have been rewarded in some way for being the even-tempered one or the “dependable” child.
Beyond that, your perceptions of your own feelings may have been ignored or denied. “Don’t tell me you’re sad. There’s nothing to be sad about.” “If you complain one more time I’ll give you something to be upset about—something you’ll never forget.”
If you told your mother that your brother hurt your feelings, she may have told you to “be a big girl” or not to “make a mountain out of a molehill.” Parents or grandparents have used some other clichés that, in summary, told you to stuff your feelings, that your feelings didn’t count.
2. You manipulate other people regarding money issues.
You may have learned as a child to manipulate your parents or others through spending. A new dress, an ice cream cone, or the latest game satisfied you for the moment. Over time you saw how easy it was to get the attention you needed. Display strong feelings, and someone would spend money on you. It became a way of life.
3. You spend money in order to change your feelings.
You may be threatened by feelings of rage, jealousy, or anger. You “handle” them by treating yourself to something new—a quick trip through Target, a few necessities at Costco, a sweater on sale at Wal-Mart, or a must-have at Nordstrom. Within an hour or so you feel better, lighter, happier. Even if you don’t have the cash to pay for these items, it’s no problem. You can charge them. No need to worry today over what doesn’t have to be paid for till next month.
4. You accept the message that you are not important enough to spend money on.
Perhaps you discovered early that there wasn’t enough money for you. Money was for important things such as cars and furniture and rent…or other members of your household. Someone in your family may have consistently reminded you that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” as if you thought it did. If you were a younger child in your family, you may have grown accustomed to wearing hand-me-down clothes, and if you longed for something brand-new just for you, you were led to feel guilty.
As an adult you cannot bring yourself to buy even the necessities. You make that pair of shoes work yet another season. You mend the blouse and patch the jeans. “They’re good enough,” you tell yourself. “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
5. You equate spending with emotional fulfillment.
Every spring and fall you’re the first one in line for the sales at the local department stores. You’re not sure why, but you’re always there. You remember your mother taking you shopping for school clothes and summer shorts and bathing suits. They were special times for you.
Shopping and lunch at a nice restaurant with your mother twice a year set the pattern in motion. You remember her smiling and admiring you in your new things. You returned home filled up inside and feeling pretty on the outside. Today you’re looking for that same emotional fulfillment, even if you have to spend money to get it.
6. You associate spending with excitement.
Perhaps your father traveled as a salesman. He never knew where his next check was coming from. The entire family lived on the edge. When sales were up, there were new clothes, ice cream for dessert, and maybe a summer vacation. When sales were down, your parents sold the car or some of the furniture. You never knew what to expect, but one thing for sure—it was never dull at your house. Today you keep yourself broke, living from paycheck to paycheck, in order to keep the drama going, to feel alive.
7. You fear the power of money so you avoid it by under-earning.
For many women, money appears to have a life of its own. If you allow yourself to have a penny more than you absolutely need, you fear losing control. To ensure your safety, you take dead-end, no-stress jobs that keep you safe…and stuck. You wouldn’t dream of owning a comfortable car, or wearing a silk blouse, or taking an art class, or enrolling in a graduate program, or signing up for a cruise. Those things are for people with money, people with power, people who like to flaunt their prosperity. Or so you’ve been told. Women who consistently and deliberately under-earn are terrified to give themselves permission to be creative, exciting, attractive, and intellectually stimulating. Nice girls should be seen and not heard.
8. You feel worthy only when you spend money on others.
If you grew up in a home where your mother was a full-time caregiver, then your sense of worth may be directly connected to how much you do for others and how little you do for yourself. You may be the kind of woman who would rather go into debt than cut down on giftgiving. You are the one to buy a bag of groceries for the needy family, write a check for a friend’s car payment, or provide music lessons andbirthday parties for your children or grandchildren, even if it means you go without needed clothing or necessary dental care. Spending money on other people makes you feel good about yourself. You have to do it.
9. You feel helpless and childlike around money issues.
Just thinking about money brings on a migraine. You’ve never had a head for figures. You hate numbers and columns and checkbooks. You can’t be bothered with all this financial planning business.
Anyway, you’re sure things will work out. They always do. They’ll never get totally out of control. And if they do, well, there’s bound to be someone to take care of you. You’re a child at heart, carefree and innocent. You believe it’s the way God made you. And you aim to stay that way, even if it costs you everything.
10. You live in a state of terminal vagueness.
Yes, you have a savings account, you think. You do keep track of your checks, but you round off the balance to make it easy. If you forget your check ledger, you jot down the number and amount on a napkin and stuff it in your purse. You can enter it later. Or you stop at an ATM machine and pull out some cash, not clear whether or not you have enough. You have some notion about your financial picture, but it’s fuzzy. You can’t quite bring it into focus. You’re terminally vague.
11. You’re addicted to money, whether you spend or hoard.
You don’t touch alcohol. You never overeat. But your substance of choice is money. You either spend it as fast as you get it or you stash it away to the point of insanity, depriving yourself of even basic human needs. Everything in your life revolves around how much money is involved.
If a friend invites you to a movie and lunch, your first thought is, “How much is it going to cost me?” If you see an ad for a weekend camping trip to the desert, you look at the cost first, your need for a break, second. If someone gives you a gift of money for your birthday or other occasion, you put it into the bank immediately. You never even consider spending it as it was intended—on a gift for yourself.
12. You have little sense of your worth as a person.
You are an expert on what other people need and want and deserve, but you have no idea what is good for you. You never stop long enough to find out. This lack of insight keeps you from making wise and healthy choices for your own well-being. But you haven’t known that because you don’t know your worth as a person, as a woman, as a child of God.
Instead of expressing your feelings and allowing them to help you make important decisions, you stand on the sidelines wringing your hands. So out of touch are you with your own needs and wishes that you continually fret over money and puzzle over such basic decisions as what to buy, what to wear, what to eat, where to go, even what to think.
In the following pages, women like you share their stories about their relationships with money—stories that may help you see and understand more clearly your particular patterns. Many of the stories have happy endings…or beginnings, depending on your point of view. These women are in recovery programs where they are dealing with the emotional issues that have for too long fueled their unhealthy relationship with money. And most have discovered that relating to God, right now in the moment, is the first step toward true change.
My hope is that their courage and their testimonies will cause you to take action in your own life. Freedom, as you will see and experience, is available to any woman who claims it. The first and most important step is being willing to recognize your need to change and make it a priority.
Excerpted from Addicted to Shopping... by Karen O’Connor. Copyright © 2005 by Karen O’Connor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.