Clean But Still Broke?

By Kristen McGuiness 01/17/12
Getting sober doesn’t necessarily mean the end of financial problems. In fact, for some, it means they’ve only just begun.
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Jamie was four years into her sobriety and working as a freelance graphic designer when her financial life hit the fan. At 32, with long brown hair and an easy, fresh-faced style, she thought that she was finally making it in the world. “I was happy and sober, I had money coming in, and I was working in my dream job,” she says before adding, “I was also broke.” 

For Jamie, it wasn’t necessarily about how much her job paid but rather how much she spent. “Growing up, I watched my mom and dad pay bills, do their taxes, and make money, but for whatever reason, I forgot all of it,” she says. “I never budgeted. I never watched what I spent, and then suddenly once I was in the freelance world, I lost the safety net of a monthly salary. It didn’t take me long to go through what I had in my checking and savings account.”

When people are recovering alcoholics or addicts, their whole life has been about instant gratification. So when they stop engaging in their primary addiction, they can be very vulnerable in ways around money or spending.

For many alcoholics and addicts, money can be a tricky subject. While drinking and using, money can mean little—and it can often have a number of bad behaviors associated with it. As addiction and trauma counselor Dr. Deborah Sweet explains, “When people are recovering alcoholics or addicts, their whole life has been about instant gratification. So when they stop engaging in their primary addiction, they can be very vulnerable in ways around money or spending. They’ll think, ‘I want to change the way I feel,’ so spending can become an easy quick fix. It becomes a whack-a-mole issue where one thing gets resolved and then another pops up.”

According to Ron Gallen, a financial expert and the author of The Money Trap, the situation is even more dire. “If you’re addicted to food, or sex, or money, you can’t put that down for the rest of your life,” he says. “So these addictions are far more illusive than a substance. For recovery to happen, you have to have a dynamic change in your relationship with that particular thing.”

Jamie had to learn that the hard way, “After finding myself overdrawn again, I had to start looking at what I was doing,” she recalls. “They say that financial addiction is a disease of vagueness. I realized that it wasn’t that I was such a spender but rather that I lacked any sort of clarity as to where my money was going. I figured it would all just sort itself out until…it didn’t.”

According to Dr. Sweet, Jamie suffers from one of many different types of financial disorders. “Issues with money can manifest in a number of different ways,” Dr. Sweet says. “We might have someone who is a big spender or big deal chaser and someone else who’s an under-earner an under-saver—someone who deprives himself. And a lot of people find that they have swung between these extremes. If we looked at it from the lens of the disease model, it has many different manifestations.”

Michael, a divorced father of three who works in the music industry, found himself in the traditional spend/debt cycle. At 48, he never thought he would find himself so bankrupt—financially, physically, or spiritually. “At the beginning of my recovery, I was in complete financial ruin,” he says. “I had over $100,000 in debt, my credit was in shambles, and everything that I had worked for—as far as building good credit, having a savings, and being financially solvent—was all gone. It was wiped out. At first, I blamed it on my using, which had a lot to do with it, but then I had to look at the patterns that also had to do with my spending.”

According to Galen, “Some people are replacing their inside desires with shopping or spending; they’re filling the inner hole with an outer substance, which in turn only creates the need to fill a bigger hole. By and large, these are people who cannot swallow the truth of life on life’s terms. They are unable to control their impulses.”

Michael realized he was in this situation when he saw that the same thinking that influenced his drinking was influencing how he spent money. “I find myself compulsively overspending or worrying about financial matters that I have no business worrying about when I’m not in a good spiritual space and not working my program,” he says. “My alcoholism has a deep, dark, highly manipulative voice, and it’s that voice that’s talking when I kick off the spend/debt cycle.”

While there are many ways to treat such financial woes, Dr. Sweet suggests following Jerrold Mundis’ How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously, as well as Debtors Anonymous (DA). “I think it’s important that people try to reframe their thinking around finances, recognizing that it’s about self-care and not self-deprivation,” she says. “A lot of recovering people never thought they would make it to 30 years old, so the idea of saving is just completely foreign. I think the first piece is getting conscious and asking questions like, ‘What exactly am I doing and am I doing what’s best for my highest good? Or am I sabotaging myself?’ We use the same tools for financial recovery that we use in the other programs: willingness, open-mindedness, flexibility and honesty.”

The DA route worked best for Michael by finally offering him a program where he could have clarity around his spending. “DA has allowed me to formulate an action plan and a new vision for my life, which encompasses my career, personal, and artistic ambitions,” he says. “It’s allowed me to bring spirituality into my finances, which has given me a new lease on the situation.”

Jason, a 38-year-old in Austin, Texas who got sober at 27, is hoping that he’s found his new lease. When he got sober at 27, he had no debt and no spending addictions, but he also had no money. “I had never really worked a 9-5 job,” he remembers. “I would just find work where I could and then would get resentful that I wasn’t being paid enough. The drugs and alcohol did not help with my mentality and the more I used, the worse it got. At the end, I was literally living off of other people.” In sobriety, although he’s worked, Jason’s financial situation hasn’t had a dramatic improvement—in fact, at six years of sobriety, he moved back in with his parents. “I have never had a living wage,” Jason, who’s now embarking on a new career in real estate, confesses. “I am hoping now through my new career, I might just have a chance at that.”

Not everyone can simply brush off past attitudes so easily and start anew. “Some people can’t get out of that mentality that they don’t deserve to make money,” says Dr. Sweet. “They take jobs below their education or skill level. They feel like they’re an underachiever. And suddenly they have five years sober and are literally unable to make ends meet.” (According to Debtors Anonymous, the signs of an underearner include resenting low pay or a bad job situation yet not asking for a raise or changing jobs, feeling inadequate to perform a job well while secretly feeling superior to others and believing no one will pay you for anything you enjoy doing.)

Jamie’s first few tenuous steps toward financial recovery are already making her feel better about her future. “I’ve started writing down what I’m spending every day, and I am seeing where my money is going,” she says. “I’ve just begun this path, and in so many ways, it feels like I did when I first got sober. I am coming out of that dark place of denial, and I beginning to see some light of hope.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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