Twenty-seven years ago, I lived at a prestigious address in the exclusive neighborhood of Pacific Heights near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. If you’d seen me then, you may have thought, “Wow, what a success!” But, as we know, appearances can be deceiving.
The truth was that I was flat broke. Bill collectors were hounding me. I had no savings. I was driving with an expired license and past-due registration. I was behind on my rent and car payments. And things were steadily getting worse. In short, I was in a financial mess.
When we split up, my ex-husband and I sold the home that we’d built together. This, in combination with my divorce settlement meant that I was able to put a tidy sum in the bank. This could have lasted quite a while if I’d understood anything about my relationship with money. But I wasn’t in touch with reality — or with the internal forces that drove me.
Within a short time, I shot through all my money. Every day I would come home and toss my bills into a deep wooden bowl on top of my refrigerator — then ignore them. The bowl held dozens of unopened bills, including several notices from the IRS. I was in a hole and quickly digging my way deeper and deeper. It was scary to be behind on my bills, but I was too embarrassed to reach out for help.
No one in my life guessed that I was on the verge of financial ruin except my friend Tom Johnson. We didn’t speak about it directly, but he started showing up at my door with self-help audio-cassettes. One night I found myself in a state of debilitating fear. I had gotten an eviction notice. With the pressure building, I reached for one of those tapes, a program called Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking by Robert H. Schuller. Schuller’s words of hope and encouragement were a balm to my fears. Listening to the message, I felt uplifted and energized to take action. “Once you act,” he said, “more possibilities will open up for you.”
I opened my mind to possibility thinking and mustered the courage to drag the big bowl down from the refrigerator. I sat at my kitchen table and opened every bill. I then made a list of what I owed. Though it was scary to finally see the total of all my bills, there was also a sense of relief that came with finally looking at the reality of my financial circumstances. One thing was certain: I could no longer live the way I’d been living. Something had to change, and change fast.
That was my wake-up call. I realized it would be impossible for me to pay both rent and a car payment. Something had to go. Because I was in sales, my car was key to my livelihood, so the choice seemed obvious. I was too ashamed to tell my family about my predicament, so I had to do something to come up with some money quickly, and I had to find a free place to live. I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and found an ad that read: “Professional couple in Pacific Heights seeks cook to prepare meals five nights a week in exchange for room and board.”
That Saturday, I held a sale in the courtyard of my apartment building and sold everything I owned. I arrived at my new position as live-in cook with all my belongings — which now fit in one very small car.
You would think that the new living arrangement would have solved my immediate problem, but it didn’t. I had to develop a new relationship with money. I had to learn some basic, practical skills about how to manage money. I had to discover what had led to my problems so that I wouldn’t find myself in this situation ever again.
I soon found out that there were no services for people like me. There was a gap — a huge gap into which millions of people just like me were falling. On one side, there were financial planners, advisers, and accountants to help people who had money, and on the other side, there were credit counselors offering minimal support with strict budgeting plans for those who didn’t. I wasn’t a candidate for either. Neither service addressed my pain, sense of deprivation, shame, and fears or could help me gain an understanding of how my history had fueled such harmful choices about money.
There was some help out there, though, and I found it when I accidentally stumbled into a Debtors Anonymous (DA) meeting, a free self-help program. By attending meetings, I began to emerge from my secrecy and isolation; I knew for the first time that there were countless other people like me and I could give up the struggle and shame of the life I’d been leading. It helped me look at my pattern of “debting” and overspending. In addition to attending DA meetings, I continued listening to inspirational tapes that kept me focused on possibilities and taking one day at a time.
By creating a set of simple worksheets and easy money-tracking tools unlike any I’d found, I put myself on a new financial path. Empowered by these tools and the strategies and insights I’d been acquiring, I quickly began to see results, experiencing not only more financial stability but also a greater sense of well-being.
This period of my life and all that I was learning felt like an extraordinary experience of grace. I wanted to share what I’d discovered. In what has since emerged as my life’s work, I began teaching Financial Recovery to all those around me who were suffering in the same way I had been.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Financial Recovery: Developing a Healthy Relationship with Money
by Karen McCall.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. ©2011. www.newworldlibrary.com
Karen McCall is the founder and owner of the Financial Recovery Institute. Since 1988, Karen has counseled individuals, couples, and businesses through a holistic, transformational approach that results in a stable and secure financial foundation. She has been featured in such publications as Money Magazine, Entrepreneur, and USA Weekend. She was featured on the PBS series The Financial Advisors and was the host of the radio talk show Mental Wealth. Her published works include It's Your Money: Achieving Financial Well-Being; The Financial Recovery Workbook; and as a contributor to I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self, a book for mental health professionals. Visit Karen's website at www.financialrecovery.com.