Ask an Expert: How Does Debtors Anonymous Work?

By Janice Dorn 02/05/15
Today's question is on how the 12 steps can be applied to debt.

How does DA work? It doesn’t make any sense to me how the 12 steps apply to debt. - Joseph


Janice Dorn: Dear Joseph. Thank you for bringing the critical topic of debt to our readers. Debt is something that touches most Americans in one way or the other. We are a nation that is drowning in debt. It’s not just personal debt, but national debt. 

In terms of personal debt, it is estimated that each household with a credit card is carrying at least $15,000 in credit card debt. Total U.S. consumer debt is believed to be $11.4 trillion. This includes credit cards, mortgages and student debt. You are not alone in dealing with this challenge!

Yes, DA certainly can work to help a person get out of debt. Under the program you must take specific actions to decrease your debt. A person who is recovering from drugs or alcohol works the steps to get and stay sober. A person who is recovering from compulsive spending or who is in debt works the steps but must also make a specific action plan in terms of recovering from debt. Unlike the alcoholic or drug addict, the debt-addicted person can actually begin to see real changes in the way that his or her money is being handled. Figures don’t lie.   

The first step in DA is: “We admitted we were powerless over debt and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Step 1 is a great place to start. You must admit that you are powerless over debt and that your life has become unmanageable as a result of it.  Once you have done that, it’s time to get on with the business of getting out of debt.

Once you acknowledge the problem, your thinking may go something like this: 

OK, I have a real mess with debt. I got into this because I spent money I don’t have. I now believe there is a way out for me. I want to be able to control my spending, make a plan and slowly begin to get out of debt. My plan is this: I will set aside a certain number of hours a week just to deal with financial issues. I will go to DA meetings so that I can interact with others and be held accountable. I cannot do this alone. I have tried in the past and failed. If I keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I will continue to be insane.

I will make a plan and stick to it. I will cut up all credit cards and use only debit cards. I will try to determine the difference between what I WANT and what I NEED. I will come to know myself in a completely different fashion as it regards my relationship to money. I will make small cutbacks at first just to get started. I will reach out to my fellow DA members for specific suggestions about how they have gotten out of debt. 

I will look for a really good website or two that speaks to the issue of being frugal or saving money or even being a “cheapskate.” I will ask everyone I know what they have done or are doing to get out of debt. I will continue to take inventory of everything I am doing, and add at least one new item a week. At the same time, I am working the steps of DA and taking a personal inventory.

The above is just a short introduction to how you might want to begin the process, but I think it’s a good start. 

DA can help in a number of ways. You can work the steps at the same time that you are actively taking measures to reduce your debt. In a way, this is the same as recovering from any addiction except you can see tangible changes in the real world as you make budgets, pay off bills, reduce spending and increase savings. 

As you do all the things that are required in order to reduce debt, you are likely to see how the other steps of DA can be applied. What defects of character caused you to get into debt in the first place? Who have you harmed or lied to or stolen from as a result of your addiction to debt?  Recognize these and correct them as you are learning how to respect yourself and respect money.

You can use every step of Debtors Anonymous to guide you through Debt Recovery. You are also very fortunate that there are a number of reputable financial advisors who can help you with the specific steps you need to take for getting out of debt. Using trusted people who have your best interests at heart, drawing on your DA group and your sponsor, and making and following a solid debt reduction plan will truly lead you to “a new freedom and a new happiness.” 

One strong caveat here: Do not be fooled by so-called Debt Recover, Debt Reduction or Credit Repair groups. Also stay away from anything to do with payday loans. A large number of these are scams that make robocalls or find you some other way. They know you are in debt and will prey upon you. They often insist on some payment from you up-front before they even do anything! The last thing you need when you are in debt is a so-called debt-reduction service that puts you into more debt! The same applies to bogus auto loan modifications and credit repairs. Beware of credit repair. If you have been or start receiving calls from any such groups, hang up immediately, ask they do not call again and put them on your “Do Not Call” list. If the pestering persists, report the call to the FTC through this link:

I have really only scratched the surface of this (seemingly) simple question. A whole new world is about to open up for you once you make the decision to take action to get out of debt. There are few feelings as powerful and joyous as becoming debt free. Think of each step that you take toward this goal - no matter how small or insignificant it seems at the time - as one more load lifted from your shoulders. Imagine the beauty and glory of waking up one morning to the realization that the debt monster is gone completely and you are truly free. There is hope!



Janice Dorn, MD, PhD, specializes in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and has done extensive research and teaching in brain anatomy and physiology. She is also an expert on addiction to stock trading and on stock trading itself. Her second book, Mind, Money and Markets, with co-author Dave Harder, is scheduled for publication in the fall.    Full Bio.

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