Sarah remembers the most extravagant Christmas present she ever bought. It was 1987, and she was newly divorced and taking care of a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Her job as a bank manager paid about $20,000 a year. “I went to Radio Shack and they had a computer for $700,” she recalls. “And of course I needed a monitor and a keyboard too because that wasn’t included back in the day.”

There was no way Sarah could afford this computer on her salary, but she bought it on credit. The next year, she and a boyfriend took the family on a vacation to Hawaii. The way she saw it at the time, generous gifts were a way of showing love to her family (even though the kids weren’t old enough to fully appreciate the gifts.) She thought if she bought only modest presents, they wouldn’t feel loved. It was that kind of thinking, and purchases like the Radio Shack computer, that led Sarah into a crushing $300,000 of debt over eight years.

“I felt sorry for my problem because I was divorced and the father wasn’t around all the time. So to make them feel better I would give them gifts and take them on vacations,” Sarah says.

Eventually, Sarah found her way out of debt with the help of a support group. She began to view her spending compulsion not as a financial management problem, but as a spiritual malaise. And so she joined a meeting of Debtors Anonymous, a group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous that treats debt with a very similar approach to how AA treats substance abuse. There are sponsors, meetings, and even the same 12 steps, slightly modified.

Debtors Anonymous meets Wednesdays at 7:45 p.m. at the Slackwood Presbyterian Church at 2020 Brunswick Avenue in Lawrence, across from the Crystal Diner. For more information, call Sarah V. at 609-658-2842

Sarah, who told her story on condition of anonymity, says that she “is similar to a lot of people in American culture today.”

Some people get into debt because they don’t know or don’t understand how quickly unpaid bills and high interest rates can pile up into insurmountable financial problems — how compound interest can make a debt double, and then double again, and keep doubling until it’s impossible to catch up. But since Sarah worked with interest rates every day at her job, she knew exactly the kind of problem she was creating for herself.

“I had counseled people for years about not going into debt,” she says. “I would have people come in who wanted to refinance their debt, and I would tell them not to refinance, but to pay it off. I could see their problem, but seeing the problem in myself was a whole different situation. It’s a feeling of what we call ‘terminal uniqueness,’ where I felt that my situation was different than any other person’s situation in the world and that it could only be resolved by debting.”

Her overspending began after her divorce as a way of showing affection to family and friends. “It was never a problem,” she says. “It was all in me. I felt the need to do this. That’s why we talk about it being a spiritual illness.”

Sarah’s compulsion to spend led her to rack up $60,000 of debt borrowed against the home she owned. She continued to add to it and refinance it until she owed $300,000. Over those years her income increased but so did the expenses of raising two children, plus the unnecessary cost of trying to please others by buying gifts. She even owed thousands to various family members.

What happened next proved to Sarah that her problem was not merely financial. She sold the house, which eliminated most of her debt. On paper, she was solvent again. But on the inside, she was still a debtor.

“I didn’t stop the behavior,” she says. Retired from her job and with a limited income, she found herself once again with two mortgages. The feeling of being in debt was crushing. “It’s always there in the back of your mind,” she says. It was a self-destructive spiral because to distract herself from the feeling of doom, she would shop.

Sarah had been involved in other 12-step programs before, so she decided to give Debtors Anonymous a try. With support from the group, she was able to begin managing her finances and more importantly the impulses that drove her into debt. (DA defines problem debt as “unsecured” debt. Credit card debt is bad, but a conventional mortgage is not necessarily a problem.)

She says her state of mind now is “very peaceful.”

“I’m grateful for everything that I have,” she says. Her family didn’t mind that she has cut back on gifts. “Mostly the people who I love were very grateful,” she says.

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