Dollars & Sense
Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I need some help to deal with my husband's and my addiction to spending. We are currently $60,000 in debt on top of our mortgage. This includes a second mortgage and tons of credit cards and personal loans. It got so bad that we turned all the unsecured debt over to credit counseling and are paying through them.
My husband makes a very good income at his regular job and had to take a part time job. I work part time and I don't make a lot but it is all I have been able to find. The problem seems to be that as soon as we have extra we spend it on dinners out or things we don't need. Then when we need the money we are behind again.
So all my husband's overtime and his second income plus my paychecks are just being spent instead of being applied to bills. It doesn't help that I work in a craft and sewing store which are my two weaknesses. And my husband works in a tool store which is his weakness.
Should I change jobs? Should we seek counseling for addiction? I am at the bottom and don't know where to turn. We have thought of bankruptcy but only as a last resort. Also did I mention that my grocery bills are astronomical and its just us two! And most of the food goes bad before we eat it because we are always eating out. Any suggestions or advice would be appreciated.
June is in pretty deep. But she has plenty of company. Consumer debt in the U.S. reached a total of over $1 trillion in 1999. Credit card debt was over $500 billion. Over 1.2 million Americans filed for bankruptcy in 2000 according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. That's up from 330,000 in 1980.
So even if you're not overwhelmed with debt, it's possible to learn from June's situation. If you regularly carry a balance on your credit card you could be in June's place in a few years.
As she suggested, there are two ways to address this problem. One is to consider the psychological aspects. The other is to physically stop the spending. They'll need to work with both.
Let's begin with the psychological. It's often been said that if you want to really know a person examine their checkbook and credit card statements. The reason is simple. People will spend money to satisfy the needs that are important to them.
You'll notice that I didn't say that they spend on the things that are important. But, rather they spend for the needs that they feel will be satisfied by the purchase. Hopefully, by studying their spending, June will find a pattern.
There's a story about children at an orphanage right after World War Two. The doctors found that the children slept much better if they were given a piece of bread at bedtime. They didn't eat the bread until morning. To them the piece of bread was assurance that they wouldn't be hungry in the morning.
June might find that they buy groceries for the same reason that the orphans hung on to the bread. Whatever the reason, understanding why they spend will allow them to eliminate spending for imaginary needs.
June and her husband may well be demonstrating addictive behavior. Only a trained professional can diagnose that. If they are, professional psychological counseling would be appropriate. But, even addiction is no excuse for not starting to control their spending now.
June and her husband appear to be allergic to cash. As soon as they come in contact with it they spend it. One way to solve that problem is to not have any cash available to spend. Direct deposit could be a good idea. If that's not available, they should deposit paychecks on the way home from work.
An allowance could be helpful. That way each of them would know what they have available to spend on a regular basis. It could also allow them to learn to ration their allowance throughout the week.
Once they've taken the cash out of their hands they'll need to protect savings. Reducing debt and emergencies should be the only reason to take money from savings. June and her husband will need to decide what constitutes an emergency well before they face an actual decision. Otherwise they'll convince themselves that a non-essential expense is an 'emergency'.
Both of them will need to make a commitment to each other not to spend any money where they work. And, if they find that they can't keep that promise, they'll need to find new part-time jobs. It could be like the dieter who works in a bakery. Even the most disciplined person will crack if enough temptation is present.
Finally, they'll need to decide whether they really want to solve this problem. It's not going to be easy. It will take a willingness to make hard decisions. But, June's right about the alternative. The next step for them if they fail now is probably bankruptcy. Hopefully they'll avoid that consequence.
Gary Foreman is a former Certified Financial Planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher www.stretcher.com. You'll find hundreds of free articles to stretch your day and your dollar!