Compulsive spender bought a problem


"I've always believed in Peter," says Alicia, 29. "Whenever he said we could afford something, though my instincts told me we couldn't, I went along with his dreams." But now Peter's wanton spending has brought them to bankruptcy.

Alicia and Peter began dating in college. After graduation, he established his own public relations firm. Still, Alicia was taken aback by the expensive honeymoon Peter planned -- she knew " they couldn't afford it.

Such profligate spending became a pattern: As Peter's business grew, he made sure their lifestyle matched. Every week, he'd bring home a new "toy," an elaborate stereo system or electric towel rack -- not to mention expensive gifts for Alicia.

Everything Peter bought he charged on his credit cards. Though most of the bills went to Peter's office, when Alicia did see one, she was aghast. And she thinks her husband sends the wrong message to their children: "I want them to know they have to work to earn what they want, not that Daddy will indulge every whim," she explains.

Though Alicia has tried to talk about her money worries, Peter refused to curtail his high spending. But recently, he was forced to admit the truth. When Alicia checked with the bank about an apparent error on their monthly statement, Peter confessed he had taken their life savings to shore up his business, which was on the verge of collapse. What's more, he owed $140,000 to creditors. "My husband has jeopardized our security and our children's future," Alicia says. "I don't know what will become of us."

Peter, 32, is desperate for another chance. "I've turned myself inside out to be worthy of Alicia," he says. "Her parents were wealthy. I don't know if she can ever understand how I needed to prove -- to myself and everyone else -- that I could make it."

When Peter was little, his family never had money for extras, and he remembers his parents struggling to make ends meet. "I swore that would never happen to me," he recalls.

When he started his own firm, he opened many charge accounts. That was his downfall: The credit cards gave Peter instant power, and, as president of his company, he had no one to answer to. When bills came in, he told his bookkeeper to pay the minimum. "I didn't want to wait years to show everyone how successful I could be," he explains. "Besides, I want to provide JTC well for the people I love -- is that so terrible?"

Finding help

"Before this couple can restore the trust necessary for a good marriage, they have to face the fact that Peter is addicted to the high-spending credit-card life," says Jane Greer, a New York marriage counselor. Money abusers such as Peter often persuade themselves that their actions prove how much they care. Sadly, it often takes a crisis -- like bankruptcy or the breakup of a marriage -- for a compulsive spender to realize it's time to seek professional help.

Therapists report that compulsive spenders are compensating for feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. Peter grew up feeling deprived and tried to compensate by overspending.

It's a vicious cycle: The more a compulsive spender spends, the worse he feels about his actions. So he does what he needs to do to assuage them -- that is, buy even more.

Getting to the underlying causes of compulsive spending can be difficult: Attitudes about money are deep-seated. If serious overspending is a problem for you or your partner, seek out professional counselors who specialize in money issues. A good therapist can help a big spender unearth the meaning money has for him, and then steer him toward developing healthier attitudes and making sound economic decisions.

Once Peter faced his problem, and Alicia assured him she would stick with him because she loved him, not because of the luxuries he gave her, they were able to figure out how to live on less.

In consultation with a financial counselor, Peter relinquished all his credit cards; they sold their large home and moved to a smaller one. In time, he learned to control his spending and substitute small favors and signs of affection for the lavish gifts he used to rely on.

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