Happy Tax Day! Welcome to Debtors Anonymous
DA offers a spiritual solution to credit card debt, bankruptcy and a host of money problems. One woman recounts her financial ruin and subsequent navigation of the program.
The judge looks out over a sea of financial ineptitude. You find a seat and wait. He calls out names. One by one, they scuff their way down the aisle and relate a carefully selected portion of their story. The judge probes. One by one, he rips each lying cheat a new asshole. A few hours in, a woman approaches him. He is tender with this mother of three. She’s losing her home. She can’t get the father to pay alimony or child support. The judge is compassionate. Without a whipping, he grants her bankruptcy status.
I think she and I were the only two people he believed that day. He was kind to me, too. His earnest parting words were “Try not to get into this situation again too soon because you can’t declare another bankruptcy for seven years, OK?” My body was trembling, my head bent in a failed attempt to stifle the bawling. I made my way to the exit. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. My credit report was destroyed for the next 10 years, my financial and employment applications marked for life. And I still have no idea where I spent the $80,000 that brought me to bankruptcy court.
There is a specific kind of joy that comes with the arrival of each shiny new piece of crisp, clean plastic.
The next day I flew to LA for an extra month of acting class. Airfare, motel, restaurants, class and car rental must have come to about $2,000. I still didn't have a job.
It wasn't what I thought would happen to me. For the first seven years of my adult working life, I held at least two jobs at a time. I had immaculate financial integrity and zero debt. Strictly old school, cash and carry. I traveled around the world solo. I depended on no one for anything. I was determined to be better than my parents, especially the way they related to money.
Then I got my first credit card. I did pretty well paying my balance each month. I think what first tipped me into the debt zone was the convertible I bought one year later—a canary yellow Triumph Spitfire. All on my new plastic.
A few years later, I was living in a women’s residence in New York, paying $325 a month. I freelanced as a photographer ($750 a shoot). I studied with an acting teacher four months out of the year ($500 a month). I auditioned daily for film and TV. I was hanging out with the minor league bohemian jet set. The details of my life seemed to indicate that I must be on The Right Track. “Success” was imminent.
My acting representation was so enthusiastic about my future; I was inspired to live on credit cards as I waited for my star to rise. I was using my anticipated $250,000 first-year TV earnings as my "income" for credit card applications. The lenders were keen to issue me cards with credit limits up to $10,000 a pop. I had no income so I took cash advances to cover the minimum payments. When I maxed out one card's cash advance limit, I'd get a new card and transfer the balance. I considered the problem solved.
There is a specific kind of joy that comes with the arrival of each shiny new piece of crisp, clean plastic. As if somewhere, someone is finally taking responsibility to even the score with me, that this new chunk of free money has been sent to assuage the past wrongs I have suffered. To anyone out there who doesn’t have the DA ism, this may seem like a joke. It's not.
By the time the banks began to deny me cards, my debt exceeded $80,000. I had used up all of my cash advances. I could no longer pay the minimum monthly payments. I had nowhere to shuffle the balances. I felt I had two choices—neither of them involved getting a job. I could let the banks lock up my accounts, preventing me from depositing or cashing a check until I had paid the entire debt. Or I could file a Chapter 7, the court injunction relieving the debtor of the obligation to repay most debts, preventing creditors from collecting the same. Making the decision to file for bankruptcy had a degree of "free money" elation to it. The actual court experience did not.
Soon after that, about 10 years ago, I went to my first Debtors Anonymous meeting.
DA began in 1968, when an AA member wondered aloud about how many AA-ers were living at or below the poverty line. While problems with food, sex and gambling have plagued many recovering alcoholics, money often remains taboo.
The first group of DA spent the next eight years analyzing their spending, saving, shopping and earning. After much trial and error, they began to understand that their financial sobriety didn't hinge on an inability to save, or the amount they spent or earned, but rather from the inability to have solvency. Solvency—DA's version of sobriety—is defined as the practice of not incurring any new unsecured debt, one day at a time.
Like all 12-step programs, its website has helpful checklist tests, like “Is DA right for you?" and “Signs of a compulsive debtor.” I score highly on these quizzes. Like most who would benefit from DA, I lived in a fog about finances, boundaries and anything related to self-care. If never opening your mail seems like a good idea, DA may be for you, too.
My first meeting was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I listened to the introductions. When they got to the part about the qualifications for the speaker, the scheduled member confessed to having "lost my solvency." No one else in the room could meet the requirements to speak, so the consensus was that anyone could tell their story. I felt uncomfortable and said so. The meeting skipped the speaker. I never went back.
Some time later, I tried the Midtown noon meetings. These members were productive, worked the steps and had solvency, jobs and mortgages. The tone of the meeting was "maintenance." Members' identities seemed centered around their lives rather than their addiction. Nobody seemed to mind that I was there, but nobody seemed to care either. What I didn’t understand at the time was that authoring your own self-care is essential. I stopped going at that time, but I'd taken on board the idea that DA can work.