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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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"I owe, I owe, so off to work I go," Spending, Debt and Stress

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 20th 2008

 Have you all seen the bumper sticker: "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go?" It would be funnly if it weren't really sad and a very serious problem. Americans, as a nation, shop and spend and get themselves into debt. Debt is a major household problem that predates the present economic crisis. It also leads to domestic conflict, divorce and major stress that then leads to serious health problems. Why do people get themselves into debt?

There are a variety of explanations for the problem. The driving force behind over spending is probably as variable as the driving forces behind over eating and any other type of over indulgence. What are these explanations?

1. Impulsiveness: We know that some people have impulse disorders resulting in their having great difficulty delaying gratification of all types, becoming instantly angry with little provocation and becoming involved in drug and alcohol abuse. This can also involve casual sexual encounters even in the context of a committed relationship or marriage. Of course, the activity is kept secret from the partner. In the area of money, there are many people who make impulse purchases because they see something they believe they must own. Not wanting to wait until they have cash, this person uses credit cards to make the purchase. Soon after, the debts flow in and cause all types of marital, family and personal finance problems.

2. Rage: For example, a spouse spending huge amounts of money as a way of indirectly expressing anger that is otherwise buried. The resulting debt then comes as a shock and betrayal to the partner when the truth emerges. In fact, other than sexual issues, finances are the biggest cause of marital disputes and disagreements.

3. Sociopathy: This is the need that some people have to lead a secret life and engage in activities that are not quite legal. This illegal behavior may range from stealing small items from a store to sneaking into movies in multiplex theaters after the initial show that was paid for has been viewed. Few, if any feelings of guilt are experienced as a result of these behaviors.

4. Compulsiveness: Also known or felt as the need to spend. This compulsiveness, related to OCD is rooted in depression or anxiety. See #5, next:

5. Depression and Anxiety: As in #4, compulsive spending is experienced by some people as a medicine against feelings of depression. Of course, in the end, there is a deepening of depression once the bills come due, as well as a deepening of anxiety as a result of the accumulated debt. See #6 next:

6. Elation: What better way to medicate depression and emptiness than what comes from the feelings of elation resulting from expensive purchases. The problem is that the novelty or elation soon wears off of the new item and the individual sinks again into their depression. However, the feeling of elation that is sought after is so powerful that it is irresistible to the person who is dealing with depression. The joy that comes from spending and owning something new is akin to a feeling of mania. It is not long before the new purchase loses its luster and depression reasserts itself.

7. It has been pointed out that some people who get deeply into debt are recreating the childhood environment in which angry parents were exacting harsh punishment on the child. Stuck in this pattern as adults, this type of person is putting the credit company in the role of the harsh parent who calls day and night demanding angrily demanding payment. The feeling of being punished and humiliated is all too familiar.

What to do?

There are several approaches to dealing with being in debt:

1. Enter psychotherapy to address the issues of depression, anxiety and the apparent need to have a punitive parent.

2. There are excellent not for profit credit counseling agencies that negotiate with creditors, reduce interest payment, stop the constant phone calls and establish a reasonable and achievable payment system to gradually eliminate the debt. The company makes the payments themselves after receiving an agreed sum of money each month.

3. Find more interesting and absorbing things to do with leisure time than going shopping. Exercise, and interaction with family and friends are very helpful.
 Also, fight the impulse to make a purchase. Go home, think about whether or not you really need the item. Sometimes, when there is an time to think, people decide they really did not want to item as much as they thought.

4. Lastly, please remember that the pressure, aggravation and stress that result from debt take their toll on physical and mental health. Is it really worth high blood pressure and other illnesses to make a purchase of an expensive item that is not needed?

Your comment are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

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