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Spending Sickness

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Show me the money: Ron Gallen  

In his recently published first book, The Money Trap, Ron describes many versions of the disorder: money obsessives, overspenders, and underearners, or what Debtors Anonymous terms "anorectic spenders." The latter group are afraid of spending -- and often of earning -- money, like the client who is proud that he has brought the cost of his breakfast down to 9 cents a day by buying oatmeal in bulk. People frequently suffer from a confusing combination of underspending and overspending: The oatmeal eater has a $160 million portfolio and favors Italian suits. Another equally wealthy executive earnestly explained to Ron that he had started ordering tap water at lunch because he couldn't afford Perrier. A woman client spends $4,000 a month on clothes but hasn't bought underwear in three years.

Most overspenders have a primal moment of deprivation -- a time they couldn't afford something they really wanted and couldn't tolerate the feeling that provoked. The anorectic spenders respond in the converse way; they deal with not being able to afford something by shutting down their desires. Living like church mice makes them feel safe. "Anorectic spenders are seeking the same sense of control as anorexics," Ron says. "But when you start shrinking desire, you always overshoot the mark."

The pitch that Ron makes to his clients is that a spending plan is totally different from a budget. "A budget is about what you can't do," he commences. "A spending plan says: I have all this money and I get to spend it however I want. Budgets fail for the same reason diets fail. We rebel against internalized parents as much as real ones." The success of his treatment may hinge on whether his clients buy the distinction.

Developing a spending plan begins with a trip to "the Everything in the World Store -- the store where there is food, housing, trips to the Caribbean, CDs, and cashmere." After taking out money for taxes and agency commission, A.J. has $6,632 a month to bring to that store. From that, $487 is designated for debt repayment and $560 for savings -- 8 percent of take-home pay, which will cover one month's expenses in a year's time. Ron recommends that self-employed people keep a six-month reserve. Since an overspender's dominant fear is deprivation, self-care is always the first category in his or her spending plan. "Self-care is a different thing for everyone," Ron says. "What we want to find out is, what does it mean to take care of A.J.?"

By junior high school, studies have shown, kids have sophisticated methods for reading visual clues about economic status. The messages that A.J.'s appearance conveys, however, are confusing. "A funny mixture of expensive and cheap," Ron -- who used to work in the clothing industry -- tells me.

The money part of the message today is a silky Pucci-inspired magenta-and-lavender shirt, a short black leather skirt, and shiny black leather high-heeled boots. But squarely in front of the couch is a sad Canal Street imitation of a Louis Vuitton bag. And her hair is an unnatural shade of gold -- a color she obtains through using the old-fashioned peroxide bleach Sun-In because "coloring is so expensive."

"What clothes do you need to take care of you over a year? I'm not asking what clothes you want or usually buy," he reminds her, "but what do you truly need?"

What's striking about A.J.'s reply is less the prices than the volume. It's as if she's picturing shopping for a naked orphan rather than for a woman whose closets are groaning. Her words trip over each other as she lists four skirts a year (two $100 skirts, one $20 skirt, and one $200 skirt), three to four $50 pairs of jeans, two $500 evening dresses, four $150 jackets, one $200 coat, five $50 sweaters, fourteen $50 tops, ten $100 pairs of shoes (five for winter and five for summer), two $200 pairs of boots, two $75-to-$100 pairs of sneakers, one really nice $500 handbag, two $50 ones, and one $20 Chinatown knockoff. Although she doesn't indulge in real jewelry, she says, she buys $100 worth of costume jewelry each month and five $100 bottles of perfume a year. Punching underwear, gloves, scarves, hats, nightgowns, and a warm-up suit into his calculator, Ron brings the total to $8,556 a year -- or about 10 percent of her take-home pay.

"When we add that to your other expenses, you've already overspent your income, even without paying back your debts or saving," Ron says.

Ron asks if she has other addictive tendencies, and she says she has always struggled with her weight and with eating sweets (though there's no visual evidence of it). She nods when he asks, "Is sugar a trigger for you to shop? If you eat a frosted cake, do you feel you might as well buy a twinset because you're already in free fall?"

He moves to the trickiest area: giving money to Tony. In Ron's program, giving money is practically as taboo as borrowing money -- it's sharing your stash, it's co-dependency, it's bad for you and bad for your dependent. He fires a series of questions at her designed to ferret out why Tony can't live on his $50,000 salary ("Booze? Grass?"). A.J. seems extremely offended. She doesn't know what Tony spends money on, but she thinks he wouldn't ask if he didn't need it, and she doesn't want to say no: "He's supported me in the past. I can't lecture him about money."

"If you can't put a boundary around that, then you can't have a spending plan," Ron says.

None of the plan Ron designs with A.J. over the next five sessions seems to require undue sacrifice. Instead of planning an $8,000 wardrobe, could she budget for a $5,000 one? "By giving yourself permission to shop, you'll break the taboo that drives the compulsion," Ron assures her. Some of the savings will be transferred to new categories of self-care, to try to cultivate pleasures besides shopping: She'll go to the opera once a month, take a cooking or language class, save for a trip to Italy, and get a housekeeper -- all things she had thought she couldn't afford.

But will she follow the plan?

"Most addiction programs have a success rate of 25 to 30 percent," Ron tells me. "I have an astonishing track record of 50 percent."

"Ron talks a good talk," A.J. says. "But I don't know if I can put my money where his mouth is."

In her book The Overspent American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor describes what she calls the "new consumerism": the way in which the culture of spending has changed and intensified in the past half-century. In the early postwar decades, Americans spent to keep up with the famous Joneses -- to not be the last one on the block to have a car or automated washing machine. But now the ethos has changed from spending in order to conform to spending in order to express individuality -- a much more expensive proposition.

Moreover, everyone in the Joneses' neighborhood earned roughly the same amount, so keeping up with them wasn't too much of a stretch. Today, however, our "reference groups" are much more diverse and include co-workers or TV "friends." Yet, Schor writes, when "poet-waiters earning $18,000 a year, teachers earning $30,000, and editors and publishers earning six-figure incomes all aspire to be part of one urban literary referent group, which exerts pressure to drink the same brand of bottled water and wine, wear the same urban literary clothing, and appoint their apartment with the same urban literary furnishings, those at the lower end of the spectrum find themselves in an untenable situation."


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