The Color of Money: Are you plagued by serial get-out-of-debt disorder?

U.S. 100 dollar banknotes REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/Illustration
U.S. 100 dollar banknotes REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/Illustration

WASHINGTON — There’s a group of people who suffer from what I’d call “serial get-out-of-debt disorder.”

It’s a real condition for folk who find themselves stuck in a cycle of getting in and out of debt.

This ailment typically affects people who live above their means. One long-term effect of this ailment is the inability to save enough for emergencies, retirement or sending children to college without incurring more debt.

Here is how you can tell if you have this disorder:

• You stay in debt, mostly with credit cards. But it also could include personal loans or frequent borrowing from your retirement plan.

• You are rarely without a car loan. You repeatedly trade in your car for an upgrade because you feel entitled. Or because you’re tired of fixing your car even though the repairs are still far less expensive than purchasing another vehicle — new or used.

• You feel remorse about amassing more debt than you can handle.

• Your regret creates anxiety, weight loss or weight gain. You can’t sleep at night.

• If you’re married, you fight about the debt with your spouse, putting a strain on your marriage — which can manifest in more spending.

• You can’t take the stack of bills anymore, and you declare that you’re ready to be healed.


• You hunker down, aggressively cut expenses and maybe even get another job or work more hours to get out of debt.

• You finally pay off the consumer debt. You’re in remission. But because you haven’t dealt with why you got into debt, you’re right back in trouble.

During a recent online chat, I received a plea for advice from a reader suffering from this condition.

“I am in debt. Again,” the person wrote. “I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again after I filed for bankruptcy in 2000, but 17 years later I’m back in debt.”

The reader says this time the debt is moderate. She’s got $10,000 in credit card debt, which includes charges for car repairs and utility bills.

“My mortgage is behind by one month,” she wrote. “I have steady income, but it’s just my income, as my husband is an entrepreneur and companies have started paying when they want, which is not on time.”

To alleviate their symptoms, sufferers often turn to a common cure.

“I am considering asking a family member to co-sign or obtain a loan for me to cover the debt so I can have one bill,” the reader wrote. “The $10,000 loan would put me at zero debt other than that loan and student loans. Freeing up money would maybe help get me back on track.”

So her question to me: “Does this make sense? I know I won’t default/mess up the family member. I can’t get a loan on my own.”

Here’s the regimen of treatment I recommend for this disorder:


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l Diagnose why you keep getting into debt — In this case, it could be the unpredictable payments to her husband’s business. The Small Business Administration has resources to help. On its website,, search for this blog post: “4 Ways to Better Manage Irregular Income.”

But if the earnings from her husband’s entrepreneurial enterprise are continually inadequate to meet this couple’s household needs, then perhaps he could take on another job. Or maybe self-employment isn’t working, which is why they are using credit to make ends meet.

l Get help — The reader said, “I’ve learned my lesson, really.”

But have you? Really?

If income isn’t the issue, you may need therapy if your spending is a symptom of psychological issues. Maybe you need to deal with childhood trauma. Perhaps you spend more when you’re under a lot of stress. And when the stress is gone, you clear up your debt. But when it returns, you go back to shopping as a relief.

If it’s just an aversion to budgeting, get help from a not-for-profit credit-counseling agency. To find a local agency, go to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s website at The agency can also help you negotiate with creditors and set up a debt payment plan.

l Don’t put a Band-Aid on the problem by dragging in friends or relatives — No, you should not ask a family member to co-sign a loan. You will be putting his or her financial health on the line.

Besides, in my experience, when people get a consolidation loan, they get a false sense of financial freedom. The zero balances on their credit cards are too tempting.

Unless you address the root cause of your serial get-out-of-debt disorder and take steps to prevent its reoccurrence, this condition won’t be cured.

• Contact Michelle Singletary c/o the Washington Post, 1301 K St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071;; @SingletaryM.



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