Published in: Personal Loans | Jan. 3, 2020

Debtors Anonymous

By:  Dana George

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

Debt impacts more than your bank account. It can also make you physically ill. Debtors Anonymous can help. 

Debt is a serious problem for Americans. By the end of the first quarter of 2019, total public and private sector debt in the U.S. amounted to a whopping $70 trillion. But statistics fail to tell the stories of everyday people who are crushed by the weight of personal debt, people we know and care about.

You may realize that your debt has gotten out of hand and you need help, or you may wonder if you're quickly approaching that point. That's where Debtors Anonymous comes in.

A woman sitting in a group meeting and raising her hand in response to the speaker.

Image source: Getty Images

What is Debtors Anonymous?

Debtors Anonymous is a 12-step program that gives guidance on how to get out of debt and take control of your finances. It also provides a safe space (either physical or virtual) for talking about your debt issues with other people who are in similar situations.

Debtors Anonymous was born out of an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in 1968. As with other 12-step programs, the first step is to admit powerlessness over debt. You are encouraged to take specific actions to decrease debt, including monitoring your finances and keeping detailed financial records. Once you have a clear picture of your spending habits, you can develop healthier habits to take their place. Debtors Anonymous can also help you discover ways to maintain your quality of life while paying off debt.

Although we don't know how many people attend Debtors Anonymous meetings, we do know that there are more than 500 registered meetings scattered throughout more than 15 countries. Meetings are held in person and online.

Debtors Anonymous meetings: What to expect and where to find one near you

Doing anything for the first time can be nerve-racking. The first thing you can expect once you commit to attending a Debtors Anonymous meeting is to feel anxious. After all, you're entering a room full of people who immediately know you have a problem. The balm here is that each person in the room has the same problem and understands what you're going through. Here's what else you can expect:

  • The meeting will probably be held in a public space, like a library or church.
  • Depending where you are, the size of the group can range from a handful to 100 people.
  • You will be welcomed to the meeting. You won't be asked to sign anything or promise anything. Debtors Anonymous does not even have a membership roll. They take the "anonymous" part of their name seriously.
  • Each meeting has a leader, normally someone who has been constructively dealing with debt for a long time. That person will make a few announcements and outline the format of the meeting. The leader may ask you to give your first name so people can welcome you.
  • At that point, attendees take turns talking about their money issues. They'll share the good and the bad, and you may see yourself in some of the stories they tell. The point of Debtors Anonymous is that it's a safe place where everyone in the room is there to support you. You can choose to speak, or you can simply listen. You have total control.
  • Debtors Anonymous is not a religious organization, but they do believe that everyone has a "higher power." For you, it may be God or something else that you perceive as being greater than yourself and a source of power. 

To find a Debtors Anonymous meeting near you, visit their website. You'll be asked to type in your zip code and offered a list of meetings in your area. 

Online Debtors Anonymous meetings

If you're crunched for time, unable to leave home, or not quite ready to meet other people face-to-face, Debtors Anonymous offers online meetings. Their website walks you through how to get started. Like live meetings, you will hear other people's stories and learn more about what goes into getting into debt and how to reverse the process.

The physical and emotional impact of debt

If you're in too deep, you don't need anyone telling you what you feel. Still, it's important to understand the way debt hurts more than your bank account. 

A report in the January 2016 edition of Psychology Science found a correlation between unemployment and the number of over-the-counter painkillers purchased. Financial concerns not only hurt your bank account and credit report, the weight of those concerns also causes physical pain. Researchers found that simply thinking about financial insecurity is enough to increase pain. Here are some of the other unpleasant side effects of living with debt:

  • Debt triggers stress, leading to a lack of sleep, loss of focus, and constant worry.
  • Debt leads to worry about other things, like losing your job.
  • Debt can lead to panic attacks that include shortness of breath, dry mouth,  headaches, rapid heartbeat, sense of unreality, and shaking. A panic attack can lie to your brain and tell you that you're losing your mind or even dying.
  • Debt can make you angry and lead to a phenomenon called Debt-Anger Syndrome.
  • Debt-related stress can give you migraines, lead to heart disease, and reduce your resistance to infections. In 2016, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta even linked debt to higher death rates.
  • As if this list isn't depressing enough, debt can lead to depression, hopelessness, and low self-esteem.

Do you have a debt problem?

Debt can be a tool or a weapon. We can use it to move us forward in life (as long as we responsibly pay off personal loans and other debt), or we can use it to kneecap our financial future. These are the signs of compulsive debt accumulation, and they could be clues that you need help, according to Debt.org:

  • You don't have a budget that tracks your bills
  • You don't know how much your account balances are
  • You'll buy something if it's on sale, even if you don't need it
  • You've maxed out your credit cards
  • You've missed payments on unsecured loans and credit cards
  • Debt collectors call you
  • You frequently borrow from other people and fail to repay them
  • You've made the payment on one credit card by borrowing from another
  • You've taken a cash advance from a credit card to prevent your bank account from overdrafting
  • You never consider the interest rate when you borrow money
  • You've lied on a credit card application in order to get credit
  • You lose sleep from worrying about debt
  • You have taken a second job or worked extra hours, simply to keep up with your spending habits
  • You've begun to drink in an effort to numb your concern about mounting debt
  • You don't want your friends or family to know how deep in debt you are
  • When you do come up with a budget, you can't stick to it
  • You don't plan for the future by saving for retirement, education for your children, taxes, or other expected obligations because you would rather spend the money today
  • You secretly dream that someone will come along to take care of you financially and get you out of the financial hole you're in

Debtors Anonymous works for all levels of debt

You don't have to be drowning in debt to be welcomed at a Debtors Anonymous meeting. They are for anyone who wants to gain control over their spending and debt habits. If you're still able to pay your bills but are worried about the direction you're headed, Debtors Anonymous is a safe place to begin.

Once you have control over your debt, you'll keep working on those steps one day at a time. The goal is to achieve and maintain financial solvency in order to lead the healthiest life possible.

Our Picks of the Best Personal Loans for 2020

We've vetted the market to bring you our shortlist of the best personal loan providers. Whether you're looking to pay off debt faster by slashing your interest rate or needing some extra money to tackle a big purchase, these best-in-class picks can help you reach your financial goals. Click here to get the full rundown on our top picks.