Debtors Anonymous is fundamentally an organization to facilitate recovery from "compulsive debting." Compulsive debting is a neologism described variously in DA literature as a disorder, progressive illness, and a disease. As such, compulsive debting cannot be cured, although it can be arrested. Compulsive debtors are those who cannot control their debt, as a consequence their debt causes growing and continuing problems in their lives. Compulsive debting is also an umbrella term encompassing many different types of behavior from "incurring unsecured debt to compulsive shopping, from grandiose thinking to deprivation mentality." Members must decide for themselves whether or not they are compulsive debtors. To help them with the decision, DA provides a 15-item questionnaire (most compulsive debtors will answer yes to eight or more of the questions) and a list of 12 signs of compulsive debting. An ethnographic study of DA members found they attributed the causes of compulsive debting to family maladjustment and a culture that constantly pressures people to spend money.
DA members may identify themselves additionally—or more specifically—as compulsive shoppers or spenders, codependent debtors or compulsive underearners. Compulsive spending is a symptom associated with compulsive debting. Spending money to one's detriment is compulsive spending. Spending money on particular goods or services after making a decision not to, or having a desire not to, is also compulsive spending. Compulsive spending is often done to avoid uncomfortable feelings. DA provides a 30-item questionnaire to help people determine if they are spending compulsively, each item is a sign of compulsive spending. Answering yes to three or more of these questions indicates compulsive spending. Although compulsive spenders may not actually be in debt, if they have a desire to avoid incurring unsecured debt, they are welcome in DA. Codependent debtors incur unsecured debt to pay for another persons' compulsive spending.
Underearners are people with viable skills who are psychologically incapable of earning enough money to support themselves without incurring unsecured debt. DA provides a list of 12 signs that are symptomatic of compulsive underearning. Underearning can lead to become a "compulsive pauper," a term describing people who are consistently broke and in financial crisis. A related term, "financial anorexia," describes "someone who takes inordinate amounts of pride in having few financial needs and is more comfortable living in deprivation." Financial anorexics, while they may find it difficult to spend money on themselves, are not necessarily underearning. Although compulsive underearners may not actually be in debt, if they have a desire to avoid incurring unsecured debt, they are welcome in DA.
The current American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual (DSM-IV-TR) does not consider indebtedness to be a disease, and does not have a specific category for spending-related issues. It does, however, contain a category for Impulse Control Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, to diagnose impulse control problems that are not currently in the manual. This category is used to diagnose compulsive buying disorder, a condition similar to compulsive debting, which may be included in the next edition of the diagnostic manual (DSM-5).
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