It's pretty common knowledge that alcoholics, gamblers and drug addicts have support groups and 12-step programs to keep them on the wagon. But did you know there are similar groups for compulsive spenders, debt addicts and shopaholics?

Debtors Anonymous, a support organization patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, uses a 12-step program to help people -- first name only -- stop abusing their credit cards and kick their free-spending ways.The Web site describes the volunteer group as "a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from compulsive debting."

But for some, admitting you're addicted to shopping in front of a group of friendly strangers (who, as fellow compulsive spenders, happen to be carrying similar financial bags) goes beyond a fellowship. Dana N. calls DA "a lifesaver." The recovering credit addict says, "They helped me not only come back from the brink of financial ruin, but as a result, they helped save my marriage and many personal relationships."

What defines an addict?

Like every other type of addict, compulsive debtors are practiced in the art of self deception. "It's a classic syndrome: When you are engaged in self-destructive behavior, you deny it by telling yourself a set of bald-faced lies," says Kip Kiebke, president of New Financial You, a credit restoration and wealth accumulation firm. Kiebke knows about the syndrome first hand: He was a credit junkie himself.

According to recent research by Nancy Ridgway and her team of researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia, at least 10% of shoppers could be classified as compulsive buyers (those who have a strong urge to buy, regularly spend a lot of money and have difficulty resisting the impulse to buy). This can include those who buy for themselves or others, including those with an inherent need to purchase expensive gifts for their pets.

Spotting the signs

Think you -- or someone you love -- could have a spending problem? Kiebke says these top five credit addict lies could indicate a problem:
  1. I will pay off the balance I am running up now at the end of the month.
  2. I can't live without buying this new antique/pair of shoes/video game for the kids.
  3. I will "stretch" to buy the more expensive home or car than the one I first intended because my income will rise and I'll be able to afford it.
  4. Next month, I will start paying off my debts and saving money.
  5. I can absolutely live below my means. As soon as I have the things I want, I will do just that.
What's an addict to do?

Has your spending gotten out of hand? Ridgway, a professor of marketing who has studied compulsive buying for more than a decade, explains the impulse: "Many compulsive buyers suffer from 'emotional bankruptcy' and feelings of shame and guilt for spending so much, whether they're in financial trouble or not."

That means the second step toward recovery -- since the first one is admitting you have a problem -- is sorting out your feelings.

"Attending weekly meetings helped me tap into not just how much I was spending, but why I was spending it," says Dana.

Defining what type of shopaholic or addicted debtor you are also helps. Gloria Arenson, a marriage and family therapist of 29 years and the author of "Born To Spend," says, "Shopaholics have different money personalities"

Here are a few:
  • The princess who spends all because the prince will come along and take care of her.
  • The indulger who abuses money the same way overeaters abuse food or addicts abuse alcohol.
  • The daredevil who spends so much it's touch and go whether he'll be able to pay the rent each month.
  • The status seeker who wants to impress others.
Arenson suggests taking a holistic approach to your addiction. "Using your index and middle fingers," she advises, "tap gently on eight acupoints (mostly on the face) while focusing on feeling fearful, worried, angry or anxious about money worries to raise the serotonin levels in the brain."

This helps because serotonin is a neurotransmitter that relaxes and soothes. "The relaxation stemming from the tapping can help you become aware of solutions for overcoming your money problems and stressful situations that trigger spending sprees."

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in celebrity, health and consumer issues.

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