Under-Earners, Unite!

By Heather King 05/07/12

These 12-steppers have nothing to lose but their poverty, debts, hoarding habits, dead-end jobs, workaholism and fear of success! They have a world—and a "God-sized Wallet"—to win!

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“It is about underachieving or under-being.” photo via

Just as alcoholism entered the cultural consciousness in the ’70s, codependence in the ’80s, and love addiction in the ’90s, compulsive under-earning is coming out of the closet now—not coincidentally, during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In Los Angeles, where, love it or hate it, so many self-help movements have started, recovery from under-earning is increasingly becoming a groundswell, with its own 12-step meetings and other programs.

For those eye-rolling readers ready to dismiss compulsive under-earning as yet another wannabe addiction, listen up: compulsive under-earning is a disease with specific characteristics and a specific solution. It’s a way of using money (or lack, or fear of money) like a drug—a subconscious strategy for keeping yourself at zero, thereby avoiding taking full responsibility for yourself and for not facing life on life’s terms. “While the most visible consequence [of under-earning] is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, under-earning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies,” the Under-earners Anonymous (UA) website reads. “It is about underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.”

Like all addictions, under-earning is cunning, baffling, powerful. And like all addictions, it’s toward death: a true pathology, based on shame and fear, that leads if nothing else to spiritual death, and in many cases—as with, for instance, people who are unable to bring themselves to see a doctor—actual death. Here’s under-earning at its starkest: I once heard a guy describe his job of 30 years—rodent exterminator. He said, “I’m maxed out on my credit cards, I’m in terrible financial insecurity, and I just don’t understand why my business keeps going down. I have the most reasonable prices in the market. I try to be kind to my clients, often spending a few extra hours talking to an old lady or a guy in a wheelchair."

This disease manifests as blindness to the fact that the sufferer is standing in his or her own way. There won’t be enough money if you refuse to earn enough money.

Working for free under the guise of humanitarianism is one classic sign of the problem. There's no shame in rodent extermination. But to undercharge and overserve at the expense of providing for your own basic necessities isn’t magnanimity; it’s using money—hoarding money, refusing to earn money, vagueness around money, thinking you’re “above” or “below” money—as an anesthesia.

Compulsive under-earning is often hard to spot in yourself (many people just now getting hip have decades of recovery in other areas), disguising itself under other names like “the spiritual life.” Unlike many under-earners, for example, I had actually gotten it together years ago to quit the B job (lawyering) and follow my dream to the A job (creative writing). For almost 20 years I had muscled my way through as a writer: publishing three books, enjoying a gig on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and creating a successful blog. I had also deprived myself at every turn, guarded my “nest egg” like a hawk and become a workaholic, panicky at the thought of deviating from my “schedule” of working many hours a week but never earning enough money.

In other words, I had made one huge leap, and yet I brought my hoarding/poverty mentality with me. I’d perfected the small life but not the whole of life. I took trips and stayed at the houses of wealthy friends. I was rich in music and (library) books. I always had a beautiful apartment—in the ghetto. But more than that, I had a secret strategy for life of which I was entirely unaware.

“I don’t work for The Man,” I told myself. “I’ve never sold out.” But instead I’d sold out to my shadow side—and to the former financially insecure generations that I’d absorbed with my mother’s milk.

I worked more while earning less—another classic sign. The fear that there would not be enough money came to permeate every aspect of my life.

Here are some signs specific to my own compulsion: Feeling an inordinate thrill at wrapping up a free cookie or piece of candy and secreting it away in my purse “for later.” Walking three miles to save 29 cents. Equating getting a bargain with earning. Doing things and going places simply because they’re free. “Shaving off” money and time, such as “making up” for a parking ticket by deciding to live on crackers and cheese for two weeks. Not factoring in time to eat, pee or rest during my day. A bizarre fear of being underqualified for jobs for which I’m in fact insanely overqualified. “I could always get a job at the 7-Eleven…no, I probably couldn’t figure out the cash register,” I’d think, law degree, three books and all.

It can be heartbreaking to recognize that the “convictions” that have formed the core of your identity are really the essence of your disease: I don’t pay for parking! I don’t buy retail! I’m willing to live close to the bone to do what I love! It’s also heartbreaking, at least for me, to recognize that I’ve been psychically blueprinted for this thing since childhood. One fourth-step workbook I peeked at posed as its first (and for many of us painful) question: What was the financial situation of your family when you were born?

More than any other addiction, perhaps, this problem manifests as blindness to the fact that the sufferer is standing in his or her own way. There won’t be enough money if on some basic level you refuse to earn enough money.

If the solution were simply a class in financial planning, I’d be there, just as if the solution to alcoholism were a public health class, I would have been there 25 years ago, too. But under-earning is no respecter of intelligence, or willingness to work, or even dazzling talent. It’s an emotional or spiritual sickness whereby the under-earner decides that self-deprivation is the solution to the human condition, that making do with less is the only way we’re “allowed” to function in the world.

But the universe is funny: it’s impervious to being tricked. If we deprive ourselves, the universe deprives us even more.

The disease is vagueness, and paradoxically the solution is not money but clarity. Clarity about how much you spend (and on what), how much you earn, and how much you owe. (Under-earning is distinguishable from straight debting in that you may or may not also be acquiring unsecured debt, but for sure you’re self-debting.) Clarity about your skills and their fair-market value, about a spending plan and a marketing plan. Clarity about the fact that if you’re self-employed, your most precious asset is yourself, so you need to get adequate health and car insurance, pay yourself a salary and give yourself sick days and vacations. Clarity about how you spend your time, about the difference between working and earning, about how you’d like your life to look but perhaps haven’t quite dared to reach for.

Here are 12 symptoms of under-earning, from the UA website:

1. Time Indifference: We put off what must be done and do not use our time to support our own vision and further our own goals.

2. Idea Deflection: We compulsively reject ideas that could expand our lives or careers, and increase our profitability.

3. Compulsive Need to Prove: Although we have demonstrated competence in our jobs or business, we are driven by a need to re-prove our worth and value.

4. Clinging to Useless Possessions: We hold onto possessions that no longer serve our needs, such as threadbare clothing or broken appliances.

5. Exertion/Exhaustion: We habitually overwork, become exhausted, then underwork or cease work completely.

6. Giving Away Our Time: We compulsively volunteer for various causes, or give away our services without charge, when there is no clear benefit.

7. Undervaluing and Underpricing: We undervalue our abilities and services and fear asking for increases in compensation or for what the market will bear.

8. Isolation: We choose to work alone when it might serve us much better to have co-workers, associates, or employees.

9. Physical Ailments: Sometimes, out of fear of being larger or exposed, we experience physical ailments.

10. Misplaced Guilt or Shame: We feel uneasy when asking for or being given what we need or what we are owed.

11. Not Following Up: We do not follow up on opportunities, leads or jobs that could be profitable. We begin many projects and tasks but often do not complete them.

12. Stability Boredom: We create unnecessary conflict with co-workers, supervisors and clients, generating problems that result in financial distress.

The disease is vagueness, and paradoxically the solution is not money but clarity. 

Friends in Debtors Anonymous (DA) tell me that under-earning issues are certainly addressed there, but compulsive under-earning is, in many respects, a world unto itself. So far, Under-earners Anonymous (as an organization distinct from DA) is just getting underway, with several meetings in most big US cities, many smaller ones and as far away as London, Bogota and Jerusalem. (The organization was founded by a failed New York businessman—now a successful motivational speaker—in 2006.) Another option consists in the 13 to 16 daily UA phone meetings complete with the typical 12-step names: “Selling With Serenity,” “From Hiding and Biting to Shining and Receiving,” and “God-Sized Wallet.” And of course there are meetings tailored for the “creative professions” to deal with the starving-artist syndrome. (As always, 12-step programs are just one way to address the disease.)

Friends in DA also tell me that the first few months can be daunting, with talk of PRGs (Pressure Relief Groups), Action Buddies and workshops to learn Quicken, Excel and/or the “DA Tools.” Because earning is so intricately tied up with time, UA also apparently suggests keeping a time log. Although “the credits don’t transfer,” those familiar with other 12-step programs will already know the general drill: sponsorship, action, service.

And my friends also tell me that though their income has generally risen over time, the real magic is that they are able to recognize, own and freely share their talents and gifts. People who were doing telemarketing for $12 an hour are running nonprofit food banks. Folks who were housecleaning (with PhDs) are having gallery openings for their photography. For my own part, I’m seeing I need to earn more, have stepped up a marketing campaign for my editing business, and recently, out of the blue, heard from a reader/fan who’s undertaken to organize a speaking tour for me in New Zealand next year. From my LA apartment this morning, I looked out at the backyard fountain and saw a finch perched at the top, its feathers shining like gold in the sun. Light! Joy! Hope!

You can’t put a price on that.

Heather King is an ex-barfly, an ex-lawyer and a Catholic convert with three memoirs: Parched; Redeemed; and Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com. Visit her website at heather-king.com. 

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Heather King is the author of three memoirs: Parched (chosen by The Fix as one of its 10 best addiction memoirs), Redeemed, and Shirt of Flame. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter.