Click here to listen on our podcast site, “I Cant Stop Spending!”
I know that many of you are not in a 12 Step program around your spending. And that’s totally fine. I believe my message can be helpful to anyone who wants to recover from this debilitating addiction. Of course, I also hope it will resonate enough that you will at least give a program like Debtors Anonymous (DA for short) or Underearners Anonymous a chance to change your life.
I brought this up because I’m going to write about living in reality and making some hard decisions around money, and in doing so, I’ll be mentioning a tool of DA. But the point I’m making is relevant to anyone who wants to recover from compulsive spending regardless of their approach.
What is a Pressure Relief Meeting?
In DA, we have a tool called a pressure relief meeting, or PRM (also called “PRG” or pressure relief group). These meetings generally last an hour to an hour and a half and are comprised of two members in recovery helping a third member.
For beginners, the first order of business is creating a spending plan. Now, bear in mind that the two members aren’t financial planners or experts. They’re just sharing their experience, strength, and hope with the third person to help them along the path of recovery. Once the spending plan is created, the meeting may be about refining the spending plan, shifting priorities, allocating a windfall, or paying for an unexpected expense. And sometimes, it’s purpose may be to find a way to fund a vision.
It’s an amazing (and often healing) process both for the person receiving and the two people giving the help. Even after seven years of recovery, I still have a PRM every couple of months.
So, at a recent DA meeting, we were reading from the DA Spending Plan pamphlet (click here to download the DA literature form to order this and other literature). The first page talked about the process of creating a spending plan at a PRM. And then we read this:
“One way to realize some of our visions is to list our wants and needs, and bring it to the pressure relief meeting. Then we ask for direction on how to obtain the items on our list without debting.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
From the vantage point of seven years of recovery from compulsive spending, I had to laugh when I read this. The thing is, the way it was written, it seemed like a gentle nudge, a bare whisper of an instruction. But the truth of this statement is that it is where the rubber meets the road for compulsive spenders. This is where delayed gratification or even “no” may be the right answer. And it’s often a very tricky and challenging moment for the team who is there to help the third person.
The vision may vary. For instance, it might be “I want to:”
* Go to graduate school
* Get a weekly massage
* Climb the Himalayan mountains
* Have the mercury amalgams removed from my mouth
* Start a new business
* Buy an expensive new winter coat
[Insert your own vision in there.]
Rarely, but once in awhile, the person comes to the PRM already understanding that it will take time to soberly pay for their dream, or even knowing in their heart of hearts it’s not something feasible at all right now. But more often, the person who’s vision it is feels extreme pressure to make their dream come true today, you know, that “I gotta do it now” urgency.
Where will You Get the Money to Fund Your Vision?
But no matter what the vision, for the PRM team, the answer is always the same. “That’s great. Where will you get the money to fund it?”
Someone I know with a lot of recovery behind her said that she is a “militant realist.” She doesn’t back down from her stance of helping the visionary see the truth in a PRM.
I love that term and it describes me as well … as long as I’m not the one who wants to fulfill my “can’t have it now” dream, of course. But the truth is, as PRM team members, we are not doing the third person any favors by supporting spending that we know is not sober and could end up ruining everything that member has achieved in recovery thus far. We know that we must speak our truth no matter how rabid a reaction we receive from our poor, suffering friend, who is not herself. We can only hope that by sticking to what we know, our friend will come back to her right mind and her recovery angel will trap the demon of compulsive spending and send it packing back into its cage before it can do lasting harm.
Mastery Over Our Spending
The fact is that money is finite. Yes, there may be an infinite source of money in the universe, but we, as individual humans, only have so much at one time. In recovery, we cannot afford to pretend we have more than we do or that’s when we get in trouble. I have seen it happen time and time again once somebody finally looks at the reality of their spending, they are shocked and often pained by what they discover, by how much more they spend than they thought they did and how much their actual spending exceeds their income. But it’s at that broken and powerless moment that the Grace of their Higher Power can come in and help them become willing to live within their means.
Therefore, when you have a well-constructed spending plan with identified categories and all income allocated to these categories, it is, sadly, an easy shift from pie in the sky thinking to reality, though still quite painful. But when you don’t have a spending plan, it is all too easy to say, “but look at all that money in my account! I can afford it,” forgetting about the rent that is due, the groceries you’ll need, and all the other bills to pay.
Isn’t that what we all want – mastery over our spending? In order to get that, we must have clarity about our spending as well. And along with clarity comes boundaries. These are not walls, but fences around our categories. So, we can choose how much to allocate for eating out or buying books, but the bottom line is that there is only so much money to spend.
Being a Militant Realist is the Best Way We can Help Other Compulsive Spenders
It is incumbent upon those who really want to support other compulsive spenders to be militant realists, whether they are team members at a PRM or just your good friends who you’ve asked for advice. And they also have to be willing to lovingly endure the foot stomping, frothing at the mouth tantrum that will more often than not ensue from the person who doesn’t want to accept the truth … at least at first. (That is why, by the way, it’s best to ask for this help from other compulsive spenders because they get it. They know it’s coming.) But the miracle of this process is that more often than not, a person who truly wants recovery comes to accept the truth. It’s kind of like taming a wild horse. You have to be prepared to get kicked, but eventually, the bucking bronco is subdued.
My Experience with Hearing the Painful Truth
I will tell you my own agonizing story about being the recipient of such painful truth.
About a year into my recovery, I became disabled. My son was in his first year of college and I had promised him since he was small that I would pay for college. Every bit of it, from tuition to housing to food to living expenses.
Now, my income was drastically cut down. But, with great bravado, I insisted to him and to all within the sound of my voice that I was going to continue to take care of all my son’s college needs. Luckily, I had prepaid for tuition, but that was just a small portion of what was due each year.
My PRM team had to endure my insistent answer to the question of where I would get the money – from savings, from here, from there, wherever.
And they dug in their heels, adhering to their role as militant realists prepared with steely force to withstand the grand battle to come.
It was clear that there was no way I could sustain this spending without spending down my small cache of savings, because there was so little wiggle room to take any money from other categories without my living in abject deprivation. And then, what would I do when I ran out of savings? Besides, they reminded me, you are disabled, you need some savings in case of an emergency.
With kindness, but firmness, one member said that I needed to put the oxygen mask on myself first. That by living as a power of example, I would be far more helpful to my son than if I bankrupted myself and ended up having to debt.
I’m ashamed to tell you that I cried, I screamed, I roared. I didn’t want to do what they told me to do! And I’ll even confess that I went and had another PRM thinking I would get pushovers who would understand the situation. Nope. Same answer.
I knew they were right from the start, I just didn’t want to accept it. But in the end, I finally accepted what I needed to do. I was forlorn, really. It was a sacred promise I had made to my son. The guilt felt unbearable. But my recovery had to come first.
And, as I spoke with more and more people about this, I was astonished at their reaction. No one, not one person, agreed with me. One after another, they told me they paid their own way through college. Someone said that getting student loans taught her important early lessons about financial responsibility.
In the end, my son got about $15,000 in college loans. And four years later, I’m astonished to say that they are nearly all paid off. At one point, I got a small windfall and offered to help him with payments. My son, who, as a child, I had trained to be entitled by buying him anything he wanted without his having to lift a finger during my compulsive spending heyday, refused my offer, saying he preferred taking care of this himself. If I hadn’t listened to that PRG team, I would most likely have ended up unable to live within my means and my son wouldn’t have had this transformational opportunity to step up to the plate. It was truly a turning point in his journey toward adulthood.
There’s one other thing. The thought has occurred to me when I became resistant during the PRM, that if I’m not willing to follow the guidance of my team, then why was I wasting their time? And I keep that thought with me when I am on other people’s team. We don’t get paid to do this service. Being a blank check, so to speak, is not living up to the responsibility of helping others walking the path to recovery. But I, as the person taking up their time, have a responsibility as well to be open-minded and willing to listen. To do the right thing, even if it’s not what I want. That’s not to say that a PRM team can’t be wrong, but, in our gut, we all know the difference between something being the wrong path for us on the one hand, and just feeling unwilling to do the right thing on the other.
How You can Be a Militant Realist
I try to live each day as a militant realist with my own money. We can all do this for ourselves. All it takes is the willingness to say no, not now. If it’s important enough, we can get willing to accrue money over time to buy it. If it is only available now, oh well, then it wasn’t meant to be.
I believe that my Higher Power wants me to live within my means. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes yearn for more than I can have, but it does mean that I believe that if I cannot afford it, then it is not in my best and highest good to have it … even if I try to delude myself that it is.
The best way for you to be your own militant realist is to live with as much gratitude as you can possibly muster for what you do have. When you do that, you can more easily resist what you cannot afford.