Living with credit, Protecting yourself

A peek into Debtors Anonymous

Emily Crone

Today I had a fascinating phone conversation with Donna D., a leader in my local chapter of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. She gave me insight on the psychological and spiritual side of debt, which I’d never taken into consideration before. She shared with me her personal struggle with debt and how the group has helped her and other compulsive debtors remain solvent. Here are some snippets from our conversation.

EG: What types of people come to Debtors Anonymous?
DD: A lot of people are confused and think we’re all a bunch of gamblers, but gambling is not involved at all. They go to Gamblers Anonymous. We are debtors, and this ranges from housewives to executives to people who are homeless. More women come than men, maybe because women feel more comfortable talking about it. It’s there to benefit anybody.

EG: What types of debt are most people there for?
DD: They usually come in because of credit card debt, but it’s also other forms of unsecured debt — the ongoing family and friend loans; friends and family bailing them out of financial disasters. Just living on that revolving unsecured credit and never able to make ends meet, always in an obsession about financial survival.

EG: How did you end up in Debtors Anonymous?
DD: Credit card debt was my main drug of choice, but then I started realizing I was debting myself in many other ways, such as time debting, personal care debting and dental and medical maintenance debting. I put $10,000 on a credit card in three weeks. I was grieving over a job change and I wanted to feel better. As I was grieving, I swiped that card wherever I went. I’ve spent a lot of money in my time but not at warp speed, and it was obvious that my disease of compulsive debiting was increasing very rapidly. That wasn’t the first time I’d had credit card problems — I was in the middle of my second debt management repayment program. I was a repeat offender and a repeat customer. I got into Debtors Anonymous in April 2004, and in my life, mountains have moved.

EG: What is personal care debting?
DD: Most people will put their creditors first, above any sort of personal care. They think they need to pay their creditors before they go get a massage or go have fun. The whole thing is, it’s about their low self worth and a spiritual disconnection with a higher power. Those are the common denominators between all 12-step programs. It’s that underlying feeling that I’m not worth it. I’ve made my employer my higher power and my family members, who held the purse strings, my higher power. We have to turn it over to a power greater than ourselves. Until we can get to that point, then things don’t really seem to change. Your higher power can even be the fellowship of the program. Just don’t let it be you, because you know where you’ve gotten yourself.

EG: How does the group help people overcome compulsive debting?

DD: First of all, we record our numbers and write down every single thing that we spend. Because it’s not about what we thought we spent, it’s about what we really spent, and there’s a huge difference. The second thing we do is have what’s called a pressure relief meeting, hence the word relief. We sit down with two other people and discuss our financial fears and we get suggestions from what they say worked well for them, in finances and other areas of life. They help us create a spending plan. We call it that because a “budget” implies restriction, while a “spending plan” implies choices. Those are the three main things that we do. We also have sponsors and sponsor others, and we also talk about our visions. Visions are our goals that our higher power wants for us in our lives. Most of us will put employers and pension plans before our true needs. Some of us will stay at jobs that are not fulfilling and don’t nurture our soul just to pay the bills, and that’s no life. The vision is about following passions; doing God’s or our higher power’s will for us. Gaining courage to step outside the box and go for our heart’s desire. We also create action plans, which are ways we can take action with visions. We talk about credit repayment. Anonymity is of course the biggest thing. Everyone just knows me as Donna D.

EG: Does the group help most people who come?
DD: When they work the program, it works. When they choose not to, it doesn’t. So yes, for those of us who choose to work the program, our lives have changed significantly.  I haven’t used a credit card in four years. Because of the program, I am surrounded by prosperity and abundance every single day.

For more information on the organization, go to

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  • jp decker

    please send me some info on locations
    in the Northern Virginia area.

  • Jerry M.

    Having been solvent in Debtors Anonymous for a cumulative total of nearly 25 years (solvent meaning not having incurred any new unsecured debt in any way, in any amount, for any reason), I can tell you that debt has to do strictly with money, with not paying for goods or services in full at the moment you receive them, with not paying bills by their due date, or with using unsecured credit in any other way.
    It does *not* have to do with anything else. There is no such thing as “time debting,” “personal care debting” or “dental and medical maintenance debting.”
    No more than there is any such thing as “time drinking,” “personal care drinking” or “dental and medical maintenance drinking” for an alcoholic in AA.
    Mismanaging time or neglecting to care take care of oneself may indeed be characteristics of some debtors, as they may be for some alcoholics, may be part of the *syndrome* of debting, as they may be of alcoholism, but they are most emphatically *not* debting or drinking.
    Donna D. does a great disservice both to Debtors Anonymous and to the debtor who still suffers and who comes to the program looking for help by muddying and confusing the issue this way.
    The beginning of wisdom, goes an old Chinese saying, is to call things by their right name.
    DA’s preamble clearly states: “Our primary purpose is to stop debting one day at a time and to help other compulsive debtors to stop incurring unsecured debt.”
    Failing to manage time properly or take care of oneself physically are not helpful things to do and may be common among active debtors, but they are *not* debting. The only way to debt is to borrow money, use unsecured credit, or fail to pay a bill by its due date – to end up owning more money today in unsecured debt, even if it’s only a $1 more, than you did yesterday.
    I wish for everyone who has or who has ever had any difficulty with unsecured debt a deep and abiding recovery.
    Be well.

  • Connie Gemeiner

    I am looking for a support group on the San Francisco Bay Area’

  • Leila

    Working the steps in Debtors Anonymous is the only way to solvency. Most people (myself included) start out by recording numbers, having PRGs, using visions, etc. etc. But eventually if you stick with it you find that those sensible actions don’t fix your debting problem. If you really are powerless over debting, then simply taking sensible steps that any financial counselor would recommend won’t fix you for long.
    Only by working the twelve steps of D.A. can lasting recovery be obtained. Money and abundance and good time management are not really what it’s all about. Getting more money never solves a real debtor’s troubles. Only a profound spiritual transformation can bring about serenity re: money and debting. Only by working the steps with a sponsor (and passing it on to others) can we get that transformation. I’ve seen this in myself and in others over the last two decades.
    Also, it really helps to follow the traditions, including maintaining anonymity at the level of press, radio etc. This is not about being ‘good’, it is about taking care of one’s spiritual progress, about humility. Just saying.

  • Theresa

    This is something that I find comes up often, and I respectfully disagree with you to a point.
    Yes, DA is about “Our primary purpose is to stop debting one day at a time and to help other compulsive debtors to stop incurring unsecured debt,” and you or I or anyone else can choose to focus on that and not include other areas (time debting, self care debting, etc.)
    However, I recognize that I do these “extra” things and they lead, directly or indirectly, to my debting. Would I discuss all of these in a DA meeting? Likely not because a DA meeting focuses on not debting.
    I find it’s like going to the Dr. or the pharmacist when you have a cold. You would ask for cold medicine, focusing on the cold itself and not the coughing, sneezing, stuffy head, runny eyes, etc. I would be looking at medicine for coughing, medicine for sneezing, medicine for stuffy head, medicine for runny eyes, matching the symptoms to the cold medicine instead of the other way around.
    Thank you,



  • Matt P.

    I have been solvent in D.A. a little over 3 three years now, and I completely agree with Jerry M. More so than even keeping numbers, the number one thing that a debtor must stop doing is debting. 1st Step: We admitted were were powerless over debt and that our lives had become unmanageable. What do you call someone who is powerless over debt? A debtor! All this time management, self-deprivation, etc. stuff does seem to work itself out, or it has in my case, but it’s all come from a foundation of not incurring any new unsecured debt, one day at a time. Underearning? Go inventory your closet or your basement or your garage or your storage unit. We have so much we debtors don’t see. It’s not about poverty, but about a sense of impoverishment that no amount of money will cure. Gratitude is the antidote for underearning, not more, more, more. Because if your answer is more, there never is enough.

  • Olga

    Would like to have the DA books in Spanish to work with others in Mexico. Does anyone know if they exist, or the procedure to get them translated?
    I am a debtor in recovery and a professional translator…
    This program works! So true about a feeling of worthlessness and impoverishment, and deserving/not deserving…
    I want to work this program to claim my birthright to solvency, and the promises…

  • PW

    I appreciate that you are trying to provide alternatives for debtors, but one of the problems with DA is that there are now many people there who use all the terms used here(time debting, compulsive shopping, “self-debting”, personal care debting) to explain why they are in DA. That is why I left DA, because people did not seem to want to concentrate on the only reason they SHOULD be there, and the program was not discouraging them talking about all these unrelated kinds of debting. I went to many different meetings in my area for more than a year. It helped me a great deal, but I realized I was not going to get the help I needed. The moment of truth was when I asked a long term member whether paying rent late was debting. I got an answer from her, as well as contradicting answers from 3 other long term members, all of whom had different answers to that and another “what is debting” question.

  • Michele C

    One of the things I like best about 12 step programs (I am in DA and Al Anon) is that NO ONE can identify your addiction for you. So, I respectfully disagree with those who suggest that Donna D shouldn’t confuse time debting with money debt..obviously she sees a connection between the two, and in her experience, time debting plays into money debting, and I think she should speak for herself without it being considered disrespectful to a member of two 12 step programs I see that my cross addictions are closely intertwined, my codependency with a substance abuser who helped himself to my credit cards led to my ultimate recognition of my powerlessness as a debtor. Drugs are drugs, while I sat and judged my substance abuser, I was getting money drunk on a regular basis.