When I talk about debt, I often use examples from my work as a substance abuse counselor. I can’t help relating my financial struggles to the ones faced by my former drug court clients because there are so many similarities. I watched many of my clients throw away their jobs, families, homes, and futures for a high that might last 20 minutes. A few were arrested in my office because they failed yet another drug test. Some lost custody of their children and still showed up for therapy smelling like they bathed in marijuana or whiskey. At the time, it seemed so pathetic – until I realized I did the same thing, only with money.
For me, spending is an addiction. Treating it like anything less would be lying.
To recover from any addiction, you need to avoid situations that could cause a relapse. This seems pretty obvious, yet it’s not as easy to do as you might think. Imagine all the ways you could be triggered to engage in a certain behavior. You see a fast food commercial and suddenly you’re thinking Arby’s. You talk about a vacation you took and daydream about how great it would be to go back. You visit your cousin the fashionista and panic about the boring clothes you packed.
In my substance abuse groups, we referred to triggers like these as people, places, and things.
People. This is one of the hardest sacrifices to make if you want to beat your addiction. To get and stay clean, you have to give up relationships with many of the people who were involved in your former lifestyle. For a drug addict, this means cutting off contact with your dealers, the friends you got high with, and sometimes family members who are still using.
For a shopaholic, this means spending less time with friends who love to spend. It could mean backing out of a planned shopping trip with your siblings or avoiding your coworkers at lunchtime. It may even mean staying away from your neighbors, if you’re tempted to compete with them in the game of Who Has the Most/Best Stuff.
Places. To recover from addiction, you have to stay away from the places that remind you of the past. Alcoholics don’t go to bars if they’re trying to stop drinking. Drug addicts don’t go to weekend parties at Bob’s house where everyone will be getting high.
For shopaholics, the list of places can get pretty long. The mall is often a danger zone. Certain stores (Target anyone?) are worse than others, but a shopping addict can find something to buy in any store. True story: When I was in high school, we stopped at a sporting goods store on the way home from a class trip. I spent $20 on a Nike headband just because I wanted to buy something. I found that headband, still in the plastic, when I moved in 2009.
Things. Recovery is also dependent on avoiding anything else that reminds you of your drug of choice. I remember one client who broke out in cold sweats anytime he heard keys jangling, because he bought his drugs from his neighbor and used to wait for her to come home every day. Another got physically sick if she smelled popcorn because she accidentally overdosed after a night at the movies. These small things aren’t directly related to the addiction, but they can cause triggers that are just as powerful.
As a shopaholic, my triggers are many. Cash in my pocket drives me absolutely insane until I spend it (which is why I never carry cash). Those big signs that say SALE! and BUY ONE GET ONE are hard for me to pass. Driving to a particular friend’s house is a tough one, too, because I used to stop at an outlet mall every time I visited her. Stress is also one of my worst triggers. It’s amazing and sad how many things make me want to spend money. And I keep discovering new ones all the time.
Tomorrow I will encounter several of my people, places, and things all at the same time:
- I will be taking Jayden back-to-school shopping.
- At the mall.
- His birthday is Sunday and he has a mondo list of things he wants.
- My ex-husband is meeting us there.
I don’t even have to leave my house to know that this will be a stressful trip. First, I’m forced to be nice to my ex, who acts like I’m going to run off to Canada if he just gives me some money to go toward school stuff instead of “participating.” I’m an adult and I know I can survive for a few hours, but it doesn’t thrill me to know he’ll be there. Second, I’m going to a mall. I haven’t entered one of those since December, and I actually didn’t buy anything then because I had recently decided to get out of debt. I really need to buy some work clothes – actually NEED to – because I haven’t bought any in a couple years, but I don’t want to take money from savings to do it.
The worst part? I have to look at my child, who is turning 13 and won’t be my baby anymore and will start shaving and having girlfriends soon, and tell him he can’t have all the things he wants for his birthday. I set aside $50 for him and that’s all he’s getting out of me. (Don’t worry, he’s not neglected. He has a million relatives who will also give him money to spend.) He’s used to a huge birthday/back-to-school shopping trip where I buy all kinds of stuff with my plethora of credit cards, and I’m not sure he realizes that won’t happen this year.
I will not allow this trip to trigger me into overspending. Jay needs shoes, a few things to wear before it gets cold, and school supplies (the 8th grade list only had 10 items – hallelujah!). He will have $50 to spend on whatever he wants for his birthday, plus any money he gets early from other family members.
I haven’t made a firm decision about buying work clothes for myself. I have decided that IF I buy anything, I will set a dollar amount and I can only buy clearance items.
No credit cards will be making this trip. Just my debit card. I usually keep one CC in my purse in case something crazy happens, but I’m removing it. I’m scared the temptation will get the best of me.
One of my friends is going to call me every hour or so to check on how I’m doing and make sure I’m sticking to my list. I’m also supposed to text her every time I’m ready to check out to let her know what I’m purchasing. Inconvenient? Yep! But I know myself and it’s completely necessary.
Hopefully with these safeguards in place, I’ll be able to handle exposure to my people, places, and things.
Are you addicted to spending (or something else)? How do you cope when faced with your people, places, and things? Have you made changes in those areas to avoid relapse?