Claudia Buck

Debtors Anonymous offers Black Friday safe haven

RBenton@sacbee.com

For chronic spenders, Black Friday is like offering a drink to an alcoholic. It’s tempting a binge disaster.

As this year’s holiday shopping season gets under way, shopping malls and advertisers are blaring enticements, urging consumers to spend, spend, spend. But there’s an alternative.

On Nov. 28, the Sacramento branch of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program for those recovering from chronic spending habits, is hosting a daylong event where people can get support and avoid the spending temptations. The Black Friday DA-athon, from 7 a.m. through 7 p.m., features hourly speakers who will share their success stories in staying on top of debt.

“Black Friday is typically the retailer’s hook to get you shopping. It’s the most significant spending day of the year. That’s what the debtor does not need,” said Lee, 56, a Sacramento DA member for seven years and one of the event’s co-founders. “We developed a strategy to give the debtor a place to go that day,” said Lee, a business owner specializing in project management.

Like all Debtors Anonymous members, Lee and the other DA members quoted in this story do not reveal their real names.

Julie, a Sacramentan and self-described shopaholic, found the Black Friday event a safe haven last year. “There was a place where people expected me. I didn’t have an excuse to go out shopping.”

A married state worker, Julie said her weakness is impulse buying, often for family and friends. “I’d go to Raley’s and see a set of (drinking) glasses for $12.99. I didn’t need them, but I’d buy them. You do that 10 times during a month and you are over your spending limit.”

She said she never kept track of her credit card and checking account balances and never knew how much she was really spending. When her husband lost his job during the recession, they started dipping into savings. Financially in jeopardy, she joined DA in August 2013 and credits its mentors with helping get her financial life in order. Among the tips she’s adopted: keeping two checking accounts. Her paycheck goes into the first account; when all her monthly bills are paid, she transfers anything extra into the second account, which she uses for discretionary spending.

Nationwide, consumer debt is creeping up again, having taken a dip during the wrenching years of the recent recession. According to a recent analysis of Federal Reserve statistics by NerdWallet, a San Francisco-based personal finance website, the average U.S. household has $7,274 in credit card debt.

Based in Needham, Mass., Debtors Anonymous started in 1976; today there are about 520 DA groups worldwide with attendance at weekly meetings running anywhere from two to 200. DA doesn’t track total numbers of “members,” partly to protect their anonymity but also because the walk-in nature of meetings by phone, online and in person makes it difficult to tally.

But it does know what triggers panic for those with spending tendencies. “The biggest jumps in attendance are right before the holidays,” said Bob, a New York-based DA spokesman, in a phone interview. “The pressure people face when they start buying gifts is huge. People use credit cards like crazy; they know it’s wrong and they go into a panic. There’s a lot of sweating at DA this time of year.”

With names like “Second Chances” and “Progress not Perfection,” DA groups in the Sacramento area meet on varied weeknights and Saturdays. There’s no membership fee or dues. Walk-ins are welcome at any meeting. The main ingredient is listening or sharing.

“The only requirement to join is a desire to stop incurring unsecured debt: credit card balances, payday loans, lines of credit, deficit spending,” said Lee.

He knows firsthand. When he first joined DA in 2007, he had “multiples of multiples” of credit cards, all of which were maxed to their limits, he said. He was always the first to whip out a credit card, spending freely on friends and family. Although he was running a successful business, Lee said, his family finances were in shambles with more than $110,000 in credit card debt. On most of his 40 cards, he was carrying an average interest rate of 19.5 percent.

It took three years to settle all of his outstanding debts, partly by negotiating with his creditors. And he shredded all of his credit cards.

Today, like a recovering alcoholic who can state exactly when he took his last drink, Lee can state unequivocally the last time he used a credit card: Nov. 21, 2007. Instead, he only uses cash or a debit card to make purchases. “If there’s no cash, I don’t make the purchase.”

As one of the founders of this year’s third annual Black Friday DA-athon, Lee hopes newcomers will show up to see what DA can offer them. “There’s always a way to get out of debt,” said Lee. “A huge part of recovery for debtors is understanding they’re not alone.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

Escape from Black Friday

On Friday, Nov. 28, those seeking an alternative to Black Friday shopping sprees can find support at a free Debtors Anonymous event.

Where: Mercy General Hospital, 4001 J St., Sacramento, East/West auditorium

Time: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

What: Starting at 7 a.m., hourly speakers share their success stories with curbing debt. Free. Walk-in; no registration required. Snacks and beverages provided. At 7 p.m., there’ll be open mic entertainment with music, songs, standup comedy, etc. For more info, go to: sactoda.org/special-events

Debtors Anonymous: At a Glance

What it is: Founded in 1976, Debtors Anonymous is a 12-step program to help compulsive debtors take control of their spending issues. DA groups host telephone, online and walk-in meetings for individuals, as well as separate groups for business owners.

How it works: Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, participants gather to gain support, share stories and learn coping skills. There are phone “sponsors” available for on-call crisis support, as well as small “pressure relief” meetings to help chronic debtors tackle their individual challenges, such as creating a personal spending plan. Like AA, participants do not divulge their real names. There are no dues or fees.

Where it meets: DA meetings are held in most major U.S. cities and in foreign countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Japan and Russia. In the Sacramento region, there are four meetings a week, held in churches or hospitals. One of those, for business owners, meets Fridays.

Contact: For more details on Debtors Anonymous or to find local meetings, go to: debtorsanonymous.org

12 Signs of a Compulsive Debtor

1. Unclear on personal finances: Unaware of account balances, loan interest rates, monthly expenses, fees/fines or other financial obligations.

2. Frequent borrowing: Taking books, pens or money from friends, family or co-workers but failing to repay.

3. Poor savings habits: Not planning for taxes, retirement; a live-for-today attitude.

4. Compulsive shopping: Unable to pass up a “good deal”; impulse purchases; not using what you’ve bought.

5. Difficulty meeting basic needs: financial or personal obligations.

6. Credit, not cash: Preference for using credit cards, not cash, in order to feel “in the club, being accepted, or being grown-up.”

7. Living in chaos/drama: Bouncing checks, using one credit card to pay off another, always dealing with a financial crisis.

8. Pushed to the edge: Living paycheck to paycheck, not taking care of health/life insurance, writing checks and hoping funds will “appear” to cover them.

9. Embarrassment: Unusual inhibition or embarrassment of what should be normal discussions of money.

10. Overwork/underearning: Working extra hours to pay off creditors; taking jobs below your skill or education levels.

11. Not caring for self: Living in self-imposed deprivation; denying basic needs in order to pay creditors.

12. Seeking a rescuer: Feeling that someone will take care of you if necessary; there will always be someone to turn to.

Source: DebtorsAnonymous.org

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