How does a spendthrift reform herself?
April 10, 2012 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm throwing myself over a financial cliff. Help me stop.

I am terrible with money. Beyond terrible actually. My relationship with money is about as self-destructive and reckless as an alcoholic’s is to booze.

First the numbers. After taxes, insurance, FSA, 401k etc. I take home about 22k. My expenses are pretty low - I live in a rent stabilized studio and my fixed bills per month (rent, phone, internet, car insurance) are about $700. This leaves me $1000 for everything else - gas, groceries, debts, cat care, and misc. Right now I am about 12k in consumer debt - mostly credit cards, plus some outstanding medical expenses. I haven't paid these in at least 4 months. I also have about 45k in student loans which are currently in default. I overdraft my checking account at least twice a month and almost never know exactly how much money I have day-to-day because looking at my bank account fills me with such dread that I avoid it until crisis hits and I have to. Not surprisingly, I have no savings or emergency stash and live paycheck to paycheck.

My spending habits are very erratic, but there are two main trends - binging or frittering money away on stupid shit - coffee/drinks/eating out, late fees for bills - even when I have the money to pay them on time. I can go a few months being somewhat responsible - eating at home, checking books out from the library, paying bills on time, shopping at thrift stores, planning purchases in advanced etc. but this usually only lasts 2-3 months.

There are also countless times when getting some money translates into spending a lot more. Last year I received a $1200 tax return. I had planned to pay $600 towards my debts, $300 into an emergency account, and spread the other $300 out between saving for a trip, hobby gear and the fun stuff I like. Within a month I spent the whole $1200 plus another $1000 on credit cards for clothes, shoes, a painting, eating out, elaborate dinner parties and other frivolous things. I did the exact same thing last month when I started a new job and and my former employer cashed out $1000 in unused PTO. I had great intentions with the money and then blew it all + $500 on the only credit card that wasn't closed for delinquency. In my frugal months I'd never dream of spending $200 on a handbag, in a binge month I'll buy 2 and then some. Some months I'll spend myself down so quickly that I have to scrounge for basics like groceries and gas.

I've drafted dozens of budgets over the years and never stay within them. My history with sticking to debt payment plans is so poor that I have zero confidence in myself to follow through with another one. Every week I promise myself to sit down and sort through my mess, but keep putting it off to the next month. I know that if I continue to ignore my debts and student loans I'll get sued and slapped with wage garnishment, but this does not seem to be enough for me to make any changes or to fully face my current situation.

I really like nice things - stylish, high quality clothes, art, pretty home decor, good food/wine etc. Yet, if you asked me what I truly value in terms of prioritizing money, it would be things I currently don't prioritize at all - being solvent, having a cushion, adventures, charitable donations, making my own art instead of buying it, overall investing more in experiences and less in stuff.

This has been going on for a long time. I declared bankruptcy when I was 27 and am again in the exact same situation. I'm 35 - way too old to behave like this. No one knows how deep I'm in or for how long - my parents, siblings, and friends have no idea. I see a wonderful therapist who has helped me work through a lot of childhood abuse and relationship issues, but even she doesn't know the extent of my problem. She sees me at a reduced rate and this doubles my level of guilt and shame about talking to her about it - as if she'll be angry with me or stop seeing me on the grounds that if I can afford my spending sprees, I could afford to pay her full rate. On paper at least, I can’t afford either. Yet I also know she can't help me if I don't talk about this.

My questions are: if you (or anyone you know) have had this problem, how did you begin to dig your way out? What practical steps did you take to stop overspending? How did you deal with creditors? I know people can live well on little money, how can I do this and still honor all my debts? What's more important right now to stop this behavior - digging into the emotional/psychological roots or finding workable steps and mustering the will to follow through with them? I'll take any suggestions - books, online forums, support groups, money management tips...anything.

Thank you so much.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (29 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Google Lutheran Social Services [your state].

Make an appointment with a financial counselor.
posted by kavasa at 6:43 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really, really think you should talk with your therapist about this.

You say you're afraid your therapist will be angry with you or stop seeing you on the basis of being able to "afford your spending sprees" but not her rates... but the problem is that you can't afford your spending sprees, which is why you can't afford her rates, either.

This is exactly the sort of thing your therapist is there to help you with.
posted by erst at 6:46 PM on April 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

I haven't been in this situation myself -- bats fly out of my wallet when I open it -- but one thing that does scream out to me is that nobody in your support network is aware of the full extent of your financial problems.

One thing that your post establishes is that you haven't historically been able to pressure yourself into righting your financial ship. Expecting this to suddenly change without anything else in your situation changing is just not realistic at this point. There's no judgment in that -- it's just a reality of the situation.

I think you need to let somebody into your finances to help you plan your solvency. Somebody you trust both emotionally and financially. If it's not your family or friends, it's your therapist. Show them your books, show them the bank balances you've been ignoring, cram everything into a spreadsheet, and get their take. Letting somebody in will push you into facing the problem, since they'll be a continual affirmation that (a) yes, this is happening and (b) there are some surmountable steps you need to be taking to dig out.

It's clear that you're not going to be able to do this alone, and while we can give you ideas here on AskMefi, it doesn't seem like it's been the up-front ideas that have been the problem. It's the follow-through. We can't really help you with that. Somebody in your support network -- including your therapist -- definitely could.

Good luck!
posted by workingdankoch at 6:46 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Print this for your therapist. Good luck.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:49 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

My problem was not as severe as yours, but my relationship with money has been often strained. Here are some of the things I've done that helped me, in no particular order. It's taken me a few years to get to where I am now, which is still not where I would like to be but not as scary as before.

1. I disclosed to my therapist that I was struggling with managing my finances. I did this by making a list of every single fact I could think of to describe how I was (not) handling my money and just handing it to him.

2. I set up a savings account and started putting money into it, a little at time. (There are some good arguments for working on building your savings without waiting to pay off all your debt. Having savings is a good feeling, a sort of self-perpetuating reward). And it's good if your savings are in something like an online ING account, where it takes a few days to transfer them.

3. I stopped carrying my credit card around except when I had a specific purchase in mind.

4. I made simple goals and shared them with friends working on similar goals (i.e., this week I will spend less than X, or this month I will pay off Y)

5. I had a problem with being afraid to look at my mail, which sometimes resulted in severely late payments. When I noticed my mail piling up, I'd take it in to my therapy appointment and go through it with my therapist.

6. Read financial blogs, such as Get Rich Slowly.

7. The thing that helps me the most is to go through my mail once a week, look at my balances, and make a simple spending plan for the week. E.g., I have $500 in checking, I have $100 in bills, I'll put $200 savings and spend $50 and keep the rest in checking but I won't spend it unless I need it.

I've done a lot of thinking about this, about why I have been so resistant to adopting habits that are so obviously beneficial and which are in a way a sort of gateway to adulthood and power and being my best self. So many of the things I want in life are things that require some financial stability and savings - why would I deprive myself of that? I still have no good answers. So my last bit of advice is that it's fine to explore the emotional underpinnings, but don't delay taking more practical action in the meantime.
posted by bunderful at 6:52 PM on April 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

I do not have personal experiences with them, but there are Debtors Anonymous groups everywhere. It's a 12-step program similar to AA.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:53 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling has resources that can help you learn how to handle your money.

You can set up automatic payments for your bills and take only enough cash out of the bank for groceries, dining out and a few other essentials.

Don't wander into shops for fun, set a timer when you go into a store and hie on out of there when the timer goes off.

Otherwise, you might want to think about cutting up your debit card and credit card. Or write GOOD IDEA? on your cards in huge print on those cards so you'll see it when you're about to make a questionable purchase.

Your therapist is an employee who's supposed to help you. If she reacts to your disclosure by getting angry and mistreating you, then I believe you should find another therapist.
posted by dragonplayer at 7:01 PM on April 10, 2012

First, the practical advice: Get your student loans out of default. Call your lender and make a plan. It is possible. I defaulted, did a payment plan and it is a HUGE relief. Student loan debt can not be discharged and they will come after you (i'm surprised they haven't garnished your wages already, to be honest).

Second, the more abstract stuff: you have to do some exposure therapy on your problem with money. I am terrible with money (see: default above) but have improved a lot in the past few years because I stopped being so scared of it. The only way that this happened was by making myself open the bills, and making myself check the balances.

Once that happens, you can start digging yourself out of certain holes. You can start small by paying smaller bills, taking settlements, only carrying cash, etc. Don't expect to be perfect and don't beat yourself up for continuing to do things like buy coffee every day or something. I see so many people recommend that people with money problems do a total 180 and it doesn't work. Go SLOW.

But, first, you have to deal with the anxiety and face the issue. Then, you can act.
posted by lollipopgomez at 7:05 PM on April 10, 2012

Does your therapist have an office phone that goes into voicemail when she isn't there (this is so you don't bother her at home)? Call it right this second. Leave a message saying that you want to be sure to talk about your spending habits and financial situation at your next session.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:07 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing therapy, but more practically:

1. For saving use term deposits; once the money goes in, it can't come out until a certain date. At the least get an ING online saver.

2. Chop up your credit cards then pay them off. Never use credit cards again, you obviously can't handle the temptation they represent, and there's no shame in that. If you can, consolidate the credit card debt into a personal loan that you pay off gradually instead - you may be able to get it taken directly from your salary.

3. Set up two accounts - one for bills, put your paycheck in here and set up regular debits/transfers for all the bills you can, including rent. Do not get or chop up the key card for this one.

4. A "living expenses" account. This is where a regular amount from your pay is transferred each month. This is all the money you have for a) buying food and groceries and b) any other non-essentials. You might be able to set this up so the transfer is automated.

5. In addition to the other resources, talking to a financial advisor is a great idea - you are not unusual in your position. Your bank will almost certainly offer a free financial advisor and you may find them surprisingly helpful - there are all kinds of accounts these days to help savers. Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 7:11 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came back to add a link to the NFCC, but it seems that dragonplayer has beat me to it. I would definitely use their site to find a local agency and set up an appointment.
posted by kavasa at 7:13 PM on April 10, 2012

Every therapist, probably, has had at least one patient who couldn't afford to pay their full rate because of the patient's issues with money. I bet you are not your therapist's only patient in that situation.

You need help. Asking for help will not make your therapist mad. If anything, your therapist has an incentive (which he or she doesn't need, because this is all part of the job) to get you on better financial footing so that you can afford the full rate again.

A lot of people find Dave Ramsey's program and books helpful. But I would encourage you to first make the big and seriously very brave step of coming out to your therapist about this before you look at any self-help resources, because the last thing you want to do here is to get into a worse shame spiral.

You are not a bad person because you don't have good skills at managing money, any more than I am a bad person because I can't learn to knit to save my life or my friend G. is a bad person because she is an horrendous driver. However, not having good skills at managing money is something you need to fix a bit more urgently than my horrible knitting and even than G.'s horrible driving (she moved downtown and takes the subway everywhere), because it's making your life more difficult. Still, it's a lack of information and techniques, not a lack of moral character. I promise.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:21 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

My sister and I both have similar problems with overspending. The way you describe your reluctance to tell your therapist about it reminds me of what happened last year when my sister went to her first therapy appointment. Afterwards she was going on about how she thought that the therapist had been bored and hadn't liked her. I finally stopped her and we both just cracked up because it was so ridiculous: she's supposed to the one benefiting from this and her main concern is whether she was being entertaining enough.

(Maybe there's some connection between this people pleasing/fear of judgement trait that she and I (and you possibly) have and the tendency to overspend.)

Anyway, you should definitely tell your therapist. And also you should try to tell one or two friends or family members that you trust. In my experience, that does help with accountability and with removing some of the shame.

For practical tips, here are some of the things that have helped me.

(1) Recording, every day, all the money I've spent and on what. I think this mainly helps prevent some of the denial that creeps in when I'm overspending.

(2) Logging into all my credit card accounts at least once a week and making mini payments if possible (like say I already paid the minimum payment for the month when I got my paycheck but now I'm close to getting another paycheck and still have a little extra in my checking account so I can make an extra payment of $20 or something). In a weird way, when I'm being good about money, making payments on debt kind of replaces part of the satisfying feeling I get when I buy something. I know it's not the same and there's no new item to show for it but I suspect that, if you're like me, part of the satisfaction of shopping is just in the act of buying itself, not only in the owning.

(3) Keeping a spreadsheet of all my debt and updating it every time I make a payment or get a statement. Kind of painful and scary the first time you add it all up but it is really motivating to see the total balance go down over time, even if that happens really slowly.

(3) Reading personal finance blogs. In addition to Get Rich Slowly, which was mentioned above, I totally recommend The Simple Dollar ( If you do check out TSD, make sure you read the early posts about his story of paying off his debt.
posted by beautiful spinster at 7:39 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing that you need to get some help on board.
You say you draft budgets and can go month at a time sticking to responsible spending; what is different in the months where you overspend? Isn't that something to discuss with your therapist?

You might find it helpful to restrict the amount of money you actually have each month as it seems to trigger something (tax return /PTO).

  • Cash only for you. Get rid of your credit cards. Cut them up as others suggested. You might want to give one to family/friends for the worst case emergencies, not for anything else.

  • Set up a new bank account (current only without overdraft facility) and have automatic payments on/near your paydays going there - you will build savings and have less money on hand. Forget this account exists for now and put the card and whatever you need to access it someplace safe (family/friend) so you cannot get to that money easily.

  • Set up automatic payments for your bills. Rent, utilities, subscriptions, cable, insurances, internet - all of your regular bills.

  • Calculate how much money you really need per month for groceries, cat care, gas etc. Divide that cash into 4 chunks and put them into envelopes. You only spend what is inside one envelope per week. Keep the other envelopes in your kitchen cabinet or whatever. But this is all the money you get to spend per month. No credit cards, no visits at the ATM.

  • Keep a record of what you spend and analyze if everything you buy is worth it.

  • Get a payment plan for your student loans.

  • Get a payment plan for your credit cards.

  • Look through your clothes/bags/art - is there anything you don’t like anymore and could part with? Sell it and put that money into your new savings account.

  • It sounds like you go from one extreme to the other - luxury to thrift store - is there no middle ground? Again this is something to discuss with a therapist I think. You might be able to splurge a little every once and again if you have generally good spending habits.

  • I suggest you deal with both the emotional roots of overspending and workable real life measures at the same time to tackle this. There are professionals who do great work without judgment on a daily basis in those fields. Good luck!

    posted by travelwithcats at 8:01 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Here's a system I use to control spending.

    You would start by having a piece of paper with a running total available for standing ($0 at first), and a small hourly rate for some challenging personal projects (like hobbies or something work related, etc). Once you have worked for a few hours, you can write down the amount you can spend based on hourly rate, and use it for groceries and other expenses and optionally use part of it for paying off debt. So, let's say if you worked a bunch of hours and accumulated $50 spending amount, you can now spend that much on food and bills and such, or perhaps set aside $10 for debt payments and spend $40.

    Alternatively, if you spend $50 on necessities when you are at 0, you can write down -50 on your running balance and not buy anything until you pay it off at the hourly rate you set.

    The neat part is that you can fiddle with hourly rate depending on how much debt you have at the moment and how many expenses you feel you can afford.
    posted by rainy at 8:13 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Gah, should be 'available for spending', not 'available for standing'.
    posted by rainy at 8:14 PM on April 10, 2012

    Budgets are all well and good, and I would really encourage you to do something like travelwithcats has suggested.

    But first you really, really need to deal with the shame. The fact that no one knows how bad it is demonstrates how ashamed you feel of this. Once you admit it to at least one person you're close to, that ability of shame to control you goes away. So please, tell someone that you can trust--your therapist, your parents, your siblings--what's going on so that they can support you in this.

    Telling someone may also have the added benefit of helping to keep you accountable. I wasn't in the same situation, but I was terrible at keeping track of my spending before I got married. But once I had someone else to be responsible to, it became a lot easier to control myself and keep track of what I was spending. So having someone else looking over your shoulder might be stressful, but it might also help you to feel like you can take control of this and succeed.

    You can do this! Good luck!
    posted by McPuppington the Third at 8:17 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

    You have been given a lot of great advice already, especially in regard to therapeutic issues that need to be dealt with.

    Another thing to think about is how you can bring in extra money on top of your regular job. Can you work at a restaurant or bar? walk dogs? babysit? sell on etsy? do yardwork (now's a great time). This will serve not only the purpose of additional income to make some headway on your debt, but more importantly it will absorb some of your time. Right now it sounds like your leisure time is spent shopping, and that is a problem.

    If you aren't able to get a side job, perhaps you can pick up a time-absorbing hobby that at the very least does not cost a whole lot of money. Learning to sew and repair some of your clothes, learning to cook healthy and cheap meals, writing, volunteering in the community.

    These activities won't directly address the psychological issues that need to be dealt with, but it could be a starting point in making healthy substitutions for your expensive habits.

    Good luck and do not feel ashamed -- most people have some kind of money hangup and our culture makes it taboo to talk about it.
    posted by Pademelon at 8:40 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

    While the processes outlined above are good, you've got to break that shame cycle and be able to LOOK at the problem before you can deal with it.

    The easiest way to force yourself to look at your finances and really assess them (not just open one of your account websites, fill up with shame, and then stop) is to sit down with someone else and do it with them looking over them with you.* That person doesn't even have to say anything about your finances. They just have to be there to support you and make sure you look at them all the way through, so that you know the actual state of your accounts. Do this as often as you need to so that you know what you've got on a regular enough basis that it starts to lower your overspending.

    Once you've gotten beyond that first step of LOOKING at your accounts, you can start on the real process of enacting a plan to get your accounts in order, and eventually, you'll have looked at them enough times with a friend so that you can look at them on your own.

    *And don't assume that it is so shameful that no one will help you. Someone will help you. A friend, a sibling, someone from church if you go to one. Maybe even another mefite, if you live near other mefites.
    posted by ocherdraco at 9:28 PM on April 10, 2012

    I could dispense specific financial advice, but your emotional state seems to be the driving force of your financial problems. So nth seeing a therapist. Or a financial counselor--there should be free services in your area. Often times just talking about your problems and worries is enough to give you the traction you need to start solving them. It makes all the difference in the world to have someone listen and understand your problem, and it's even better when you actually get useful advice.

    Go find someone to talk to about this, before you do anything else. If it costs money, like a therapist, then it'll be money well spent.
    posted by zardoz at 9:56 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

    That's great that you have the right intentions - good intentions! Now just make that spending a priority. You say within a month you spent the 1200 on the wrong stuff - but you couldn't do that if you FIRST spent it on your plan. Your excellent plan. Spend on getting rid of the bills. It feels great to be free from them. Just do that first. That will be a huge step. And I bet it will feel good and motivate you further.
    posted by Listener at 10:37 PM on April 10, 2012

    I'm seconding "print this out, and hand it to your therapist".

    For a book, I recommend: "Money Drunk, Money Sober"

    However, I think a regular social support for this would be most important. I'd suggest either Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University (despite the christian leanings), or Debtors Anonymous. People who are in the same boat, with whom you can acknowledge your position.
    And, listen to Dave Ramsey's radio show.

    You need to know that you are not alone, that many people get themselves into your situation, and most importantly, that they can also get themselves out. Being around people you can be honest with, will let you be more honest with yourself.

    It's $89 at the moment for lifetime membership to 'FPU', which means you can go to as many FPU classes as you want. Good luck!
    posted by Elysum at 2:00 AM on April 11, 2012

    Handbags, dinner parties, expensive clothes, art... could it be that the things you "like" to buy are actually just ways of covering yourself with a veneer of financial comfort so that the people around you can't tell that things are getting bad? How much would you like these things if nobody else could see you possessing or orchestrating them? Because it doesn't sound like you get any sustained pleasure from these purchases; you get a momentary shot of relief from anxiety, soon to be followed by even more anxiety. If that's the cycle -- that you sacrifice what you'd actually enjoy (vacation, art supplies, a sense of security) to stave off what you fear (your struggles being seen by others) -- then the shame is what you've got to kick out of your life before anything else can get better.
    posted by jon1270 at 3:44 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

    Controlling your finances is easier if you have tools to do so. If you haven't already considered it, a package like Quicken can bring some clarity to it all if you have the discipline to use it. Used properly, it will help you see discretionary vs mandatory spending, a breakdown of how you're spending your money, help plan your monthly cash flow, etc.

    I have a legitimate, never-used copy of Quicken 2007 for Windows here, got it free one year with TurboTax, looking for a good home. Free to the OP or the first person to MeMail me about it. Otherwise newer versions are usually pretty cheap down at Sams Club.
    posted by jgreco at 5:50 AM on April 11, 2012

    I would have had this same problem when I was suffering from depression. That exact statement hit home: I don't look at my bills or checking account because it hurts to look at them. And I got into the same kind of trouble you did- built up many thousands of debt, one $5 trip to Starbucks I couldn't afford at a time.

    You have got to do two things:

    1- Figure out a way to stay on top of your money, to at least stop digging yourself in deeper. What made all the difference for me was setting up all my bills to be due at the same time every month, so I only had to "do bills" once a month. This made it easier to budget on the fly- pay all the fixed bills, and then pay as much onto the credit cards as I could with the money I had left.

    1b-Do not use your bill paying account for daily expenses. Credit card interest is expensive, but a $35 overdraft charge for a $10 purchase is really expensive. If credit cards are a temptation, use cash. Figure out what your bills cost, and then figure out a way to live on what's left. One way to do that is the envelope method of savings. You know that you spend $100 a month on gas, so you put $100 into the gas envelope every month. You know Christmas will cost you say $200. So, every month you stuff $20 into an envelope marked Christmas. And so on.

    1c- When you are budgeting for yourself, it sometimes helps to look at the big picture first. What I did was set up a spreadsheet that had 13 columns. Yearly, and 12 monthlies. Each column starts with income at the top, subtracts the bills and has "what's left" at the bottom. Make each line item either sum up to the yearly (like rent and fixed monthly payments), or start from the yearly and divide by 12 to get the monthly (like non fixed things, clothing, cell phone replacements and whatnot.) That will tell you what you can afford to spend for those things, and also how much you need to save every month to be able to afford what you want.

    1d- It isn't splurging if you've budgeted for it. There is room for "expensive" things if you make budgetary room for them. If happy hour with your work friends is important to you, then maybe you have to give up eating lunch out during the week. If going home for Christmas is important, maybe you have to give up spring break.

    2- Come up with a plan to improve your income. This was a HUGE thing for me- I was at my therapist's office, and he asked me point blank: "Do you have a plan? Where do you want to be in 5 years?" I was literally speechless. Because I didn't. My only plan was to continue worrying and trying to survive.

    One thing you need to do is decouple spending money from your mood and feeling of well being. (I still don't have this completely knocked- I currently have a somewhat unexpected $400 windfall almost literally burning a hole in my pocket. I'm thinking "argh! I've got to spend this intelligently before I spend it frivolously"! Ridiculous.) Reinforce in your mind that buying new stuff might feel good, but it cannot possibly feel good enough for long enough to counteract the long-term damage it causes. Look at your old bills, look at the stuff you bought that you are still paying for. Not for the shame of it, but to wear out the shame and let the inspiration to stop doing that to yourself shine though.

    You don't need (or even necessarily want) every one in your life to be aware of your financial struggles. But you DO need to be able to tell the right people the truth about the part of the situation they are involved with. You might have to tell your siblings that you weren't able to save much for Christmas this year, and to agree with them to keep it small. You have to be able to tell your work friends that you can't afford going to Chipotle every day.
    posted by gjc at 6:26 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

    debt management plan has helped us immensely. care one credit is the one that we have used. it has helped us with the credit cards. depending on your type of student loan they may be able to help with that, but it really truly depends on your loans.

    make yourself accountable to someone. your therapist or your family. it is shameful, but that is part of it. people need to start talking more openly about money in our society. it doesn't need to be shameful, especially these days.

    when you get $, don't worry about an emergency account or retirement right now. PAY DOWN THE DEBT. it's high interest. when the debt is gone, then start building emergency and retirement accounts.
    posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2012

    What I propose will be impossible if you don't have the right person to rely on, but worth a shot if you do. As you say, you're old enough to know better, and talking to a therapist apparently is only costing you more money.

    Hand the reins to someone else, someone who will train you like a trainer breaks a horse. If you don't have a trustworthy mate, then a trustworthy relative or very good friend you would trust with your bank PINs. You say your parents, siblings, and friends have no idea? Let them know and choose from one of them. Hand over the cards, including the bank cards, not just the credit cards, so you have to ask that person for money when you run out. Let that person watch your budget and dole out small amounts to you frequently -- daily if you see each other daily, but small daily amount, enough to get you through the day sensibly and within the monthly budget. If you blow it all before breakfast, you have to wait until the next day for more. When you want to buy something that looks unnecessary and beyond your budget, that person needs to tell you no and you need to listen. And you both track your progress: you look at your balances and draw lines on charts that you put up on the fridge showing your decreasing debts and increasing savings in nice bright colors. Agree on a goal you need to reach before you get the bank card back, and another before you get the credit cards back (if you don't just cut them up).

    And you can work out rewards for being a good girl, but low-cost high-experience rewards like picnics, hikes, art-making sessions, a new pencil, a drawing pad, a local day trip by bus or train to a place you always wanted to go, a language course, joining a group that does something good. Learn how not to derive your pleasure from the act of spending money.
    posted by pracowity at 9:06 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

    All the advice you've gotten upthread is spot on; tell your therapist, go to credit counseling, don't use your cards, etc. But as you said, you know what you're suppose to be doing, and you can do that for short periods of time....but sometimes you just can't control it. You need physical tricks to keep you on the wagon. I am many years clean, as it were, but I know how it is. You have to keep the drugs away from you. At all costs. The problem here is that while you can and should cut up most of your credit cards, you really might need one non-maxed out credit card for a true emergency, and if you're going to be using only cash, you'll need your bank card to access the cash. But those two cards are still part of the problem, so you need to contain the risk they pose. I have these two (weird as hell) tips:

    - Keep only one (non-maxed out) Credit Card. Freeze this card in a large block of ice. In a real emergency (car dead, must get to work!), you can thaw the ice, wipe off your card, and use it...but it will be really inconvenient. And I'll tel you now, if you try to break the block off ice to get the card out quicker, you're liable to snap the card in half (don't ask me how I know that ;) ) which will make it really hard to use, heh.

    - Only use your Bank Card to get your weekly cash from the bank. In order to keep yourself from just grabbing the card as you walk out the door, and subsequently binge-spending later that day, keep that card in a small tub, or Ziploc baggie, of something very sticky in your fridge. I recommend honey or molasses. Weird, I know, but hear me out: you can easily wash this stuff off for the weekly spending money ATM withdrawl, but washing it will take a little time. You won't be able to "grab it just in case" on your way out the door.

    I know those sounds extreme, but it was weird tricks like that that got me past the worst of re-learning how to handle my finances. Will-power wasn't working at all, and these did. So there you are.
    posted by JuliaIglesias at 10:50 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

    It's possible that this is a symptom of something that could benefit from medication, and that you would benefit from a visit to a psychiatrist as well as a therapist. It sounds like you're in a job with health insurance, and often health insurance will pay for psychiatry and a psychiatrist can prescribe. Also, you could consider pre-paying your therapist on the day you get paid. You could also look into developing some sort of trust or power-of-attorney sort of situation where you get an allowance and your bills are paid directly. That is not the sort of thing to be undertaken lightly, or without much research, but it just might keep you from ending up in a much deeper mess. It could also be temporary, lasting only until your psychiatrist/therapist think things are under control, or just until your debts are paid off, or just for a few years. Since you'd be the one setting it up (with a lawyer), you'd be able to set the parameters. You'd still have control of your "fun" allowance money, and learning with a smaller amount of cash is much lower stakes, both emotionally and physically. You could do fun budgeting with it, like figuring up the amount it would take for a vacation every year, and putting some money in a savings account every week, and eating out a few less times, things like that.

    Your therapist may be willing to help you balance your checkbook during session. Schedule a session for the day you get paid, prepay your bills and let your therapist's office mail the checks for you so you don't forget. The following are strategies for not running out of basic needs: get a gas card, and let that be one of the monthly bills you pay at your therapist's office. Buy prepaid grocery cards according to your budget, and keep your allowance as your "allowance" for frivolous spending and entertainment only. That way you're not mixing up your absolute necessities and your need for fun (your income is clearly enough to have a bit for fun, and without any fun money at all, I seriously thing your binging would not begin to improve). Mixing up these two is worsening the losing track aspect of this, and I suspect the anxiety is causing you to lose track even more. You can take one of several tactics with credit cards. You can choose to cancel them all (something I don't necessarily think is a great idea), or you can keep one or two for emergencies and leave them in a safe-deposit box at a bank, or with a friend, or a financial counselor. Truly emergency-only.

    You need to see a psychiatrist. They can make the assessment as to whether or not you need medication, at least temporarily. Overspending can be the symptom of a bunch of different chemical imbalances, and not just a self-will problem.

    You need allies. Your friends, no matter what you think, are probably not blind to what's going on. If you are actively seeking help, I'd be willing to bet you either have friends, or can find friends who are willing to help you while you struggle with this.

    You're on the right track. You know there's a serious problem, and you're reaching out. Is there anyone close to you who can help hold you accountable without making you feel like crap about yourself? We can offer advice, but random internet people can't help you day-to-day, or at 2 in the morning when you want to buy that really great bag from the designer discount site. You're not a terrible person. This is an easy problem to have, and it's easy for it to spiral out of control.

    You need to be very up-front to your therapist about the depth of the problem, and about the fact that you've tried budgeting and you've already tried bankruptcy, and you need better solutions.
    posted by thelastcamel at 1:18 PM on April 12, 2012

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