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These Women Paid Off $262,000 Worth of Debt Using Accountability Groups

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Just a few short years ago, Janet Lombardi of Long Island, N.Y., was mired in debt. Her husband of 25 years was recently sent to prison, and she was left to face their $485,000 mortgage and $60,000 of credit card debt alone.

“Once I realized the astounding levels of debt he had accumulated, I resolved to get solvent, and I did,” Lombardi told MagnifyMoney.

Help came from an unexpected source: an accountability group. Lombardi joined a support group for people struggling with debt called Debtors Anonymous (DA), an offshoot of the well-known support group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Using a process similar to the 12-step program made famous by AA, the DA process includes making amends to those wronged and becoming aware of compulsive habits and characteristics that can lead to overspending. People can attend meetings at no cost with the options of face-to-face, online, or phone meetings in several languages.

After joining DA, Lombardi made some big strides in her finances: She sold the home she couldn’t afford, negotiated her credit card debt down from $60,000 to $20,000, and paid it all off over the next two years. She says she now lives solely on cash and enjoys the kind of financial stability she’d never experienced before.

Lombardi

“Having a place to openly discuss feelings around money is enormous,” Lombardi says. “And having partners to help you go over your finances and help you with day-to-day management is super helpful.”

If getting out of debt has been difficult for you, joining an accountability group might be a simple way to get the support you need. Whether you are trying to lose weight, overcome addiction, or fix your finances, those who work in a group setting are more likely to reach their goals, research has shown.

Things like stating a goal and having accountability along with action steps make all the difference in reaching that goal.

In this post, we spoke to Lombardi as well as three other women who have paid off a collective $262,000 worth of debt with the help of debt accountability groups.

3 Reasons Accountability Groups Work

The Group Effect

Studies reveal that those who explicitly state a goal or an attempt to solve a problem are 10 times more likely to reach their goal than those who don’t. In a group setting, there’s no negotiating: You’ve got to be up front about your problems along with your resolve to fix them.

Positive Peer Pressure

Dr. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist who studies the power of social influence, is noted for observing the effects of positive peer pressure: It helps us make difficult decisions and attempt to one-up our peers (in a good way). In other words, you are more likely to strive toward a goal if you see people similar to you achieving (or going toward) the same goal.

Powerful Problem Solving and Inclusion

Group therapy is common in the world of psychotherapy and can be an effective tool for dealing with the behavioral root of money problems. A group approach to problem solving involves talking, reflection, and listening to people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Groups can also remove the stigma and loneliness of dealing with a problem like money mismanagement.

Jessica Garbarino, 39, of Wellington, Fla., completed a popular course on money management called Financial Peace University (FPU) in 2010. The class isn’t free, with a fee of $109 to $149 to enroll. FPU was created by debt-free guru, Dave Ramsey. FPU’s course is typically taught at churches, community centers, or schools, but people can also complete the course online. For Garbarino, the group approach of tackling debt helped her pay down $8,000 while in the class and gave her the tools to get rid of another $26,000 worth of debt that same year.

Jessica Garbarino

“It made you feel like you were not alone in your financial journey,” Garbarino says. “We were all able to talk openly and honestly about our current financial situation and encourage each other.”

How to Find a Debt Accountability Group

Debt accountability groups and forums exist all over the internet. Many, like Financial Peace University and Debtors Anonymous, mainly operate as in-person meetings. Some of your favorite financial gurus might have groups you can participate in as well. Look for personal finance authors, bloggers, or experts who discuss money regularly. They may have a debt accountability group or be able to direct you to one they can vouch for. These groups can be offered in a variety of formats: in person, online (Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, webinars, website forums, etc.), or even on group conference calls.

Leslie Walsh, 48, of Sparks, Nev., is a government worker who says she paid off over $28,000 with the help of her accountability group. She found support in an unconventional arena: Facebook. Walsh joined a group started by personal finance blogger Jackie Beck of The Debt Myth. Walsh says she received support and encouragement through the Facebook group, via email, and through a debt repayment app the group’s founder created.

Leslie Walsh
Leslie Walsh

When searching for an accountability group, make sure that it’s is a good fit and that you are comfortable with the way it operates. For example, some groups have rules around confidentiality and want participants to check in regularly. Some groups are more relaxed in terms of updates and accountability. Choose a group approach that works for you and will help you reach your goal of paying off debt.

How to Get the Most Out of an Accountability Group

Rachel Gause, 38, of Richlands, N.C., completed Financial Peace University twice and now teaches the class herself. She believes firmly in the power of a group to fix your finances. After paying off $180,000 in debt as a single mom, she believes coming clean and taking responsibility helps you get the most out of a group setting.

Rachel Gause
Rachel Grause

“[Group members] must acknowledge that they have an issue with managing their personal finances,” says Gause. “People with all types of incomes have issues regardless of race, age, and education level.”

There are many ways to participate and get value out of an accountability group, but the more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

Here are some tips that should help:

  • Remain committed to check-in times, assignments, and times to share.
  • Be as transparent as you possibly can but avoid sharing personal details like account numbers, passwords, etc. with group members.
  • Have a plan to share with your group, but be realistic (and open) about your progress.
  • Though group advice will be helpful, remember that debt problems can be financial and legal in nature, so engage professional help when necessary.

The evidence is compelling: An accountability group could help you make strides toward eliminating your debt once and for all. But although accountability groups can be good for people who need an extra nudge toward their financial goals, remember to seek professional help when necessary. Done the right way, group accountability could be just the thing you need to make a dent in your debt.

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What Happened When I Used a Credit Card for the First Time in 7 Years

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The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Credit card fraud

The following story is an excerpt from “The Recovering Spender: How to Live a Happy, Fulfilled, Debt-Free Life” by Lauren Greutman.

I decided to do a little experiment. I took myself off a budget for three months and made myself start using a credit card again. I’d been successfully budgeting for more than seven years, and had successfully paid off over $40,000 in debt and half of our mortgage.

People around me consider me very good with money, and I agree with them; I am very good with sticking to a budget. I know my boundaries and how to stay within the fence. (Remember, I wasn’t always this way.) But I wanted to see what would happen if I took myself off a budget, stopped using cash, and used a credit card instead. I haven’t owned a single credit card in years, ever since we put ours through a paper shredder. I’ve been using cash for most of the past seven years, so using a credit card again was way outside of my comfort zone.

The first thing I did was to sign up for a card that would give me a certain amount of points if I spent $3,000 in the first three months of using it. I then stopped using cash and decided to only use the credit card for those three months. My goal was to earn enough points for a free stay at a hotel for a fun vacation for my family. I wanted to see how quickly my money rules would go out the window and I would turn back into a Spender.

How bad could it be?

In the first week I did pretty well. I didn’t spend too much unnecessary money. I did try to find different ways to spend money using the credit card so that I could earn extra points. I paid a few of my bills with the card and paid them o right away online. I figured this couldn’t be bad. Two nights that week I had nightmares in which I woke up in a panic attack.

The nightmares were about moving back into our old house in South Carolina, and they were both the same: We decided to return to our old home and found it was back on the market, so we bought it again. I saw my family of six living in the same house where we had lived in during those stressful years. Not only were we back in that house, but we were also again in $40,000 worth of debt. Those dreams felt so real. They were the kind where you wake up and your heart is beating fast and you aren’t sure if you are awake or asleep. I woke up in my current house, thankful that it was only a dream. There was no way I wanted to go back to that old way of life.

Looking back, I see those dreams as a warning. Both times I woke up mid-dream in a panic attack that we were going to go back into debt. I was terrified of using the credit card again. It literally was giving me nightmares, and I found myself hating what I was doing. I could see myself going down the same path again, and I was terrified. I never want to go back to that place of no self-control, transferring balances to zero percent credit cards to stay afloat, and constantly stressed because we didn’t have the money for basic essentials.

Sticking it out

At this point, I wanted to quit my experiment; it was just too hard for me to go back to old habits. Ultimately, I decided to stick it out, because the question of whether I would fall back into my old spending habits had not been answered yet.

One day I was having a rough time with the kids. I looked at my husband, Mark, and said, “Can I just go somewhere by myself for an hour?” Being the great husband that he is, he put the kids to bed and I left the house to find something to do. I live in a small town and there isn’t much open in the evening, so I did what most people do and headed to Walmart (it would have been Target if I had one nearby). I found myself walking around the store, sick to my stomach and anxious, looking around for something to “do” and something to buy.

I picked up a York Peppermint Patty, a new curling iron, and some fake eyelashes (a total impulse purchase). I was sad, depressed, and feeling totally lost. I found myself wandering around the brightly lit store without a plan or goal. It was a very lonely feeling, but I realized that living without a budget made me depressed. I had no idea how much money was in our checking account. It felt horrible! Ironically, that feeling of depression over not knowing what was going on led to more spending because of boredom.

Three months later

At the end of my experiment, three months later, I was a complete mess. I had spent $3,000 on the credit card but paid it off in full every month. Yet I had somehow managed to spend an extra $2,000 on that card and didn’t know where the money had gone or what I had spent it on. I was anxious because I had no idea what we had in our bank account, and I was stressed out to the max. Here I was, seven years later, sitting on that same bed in our much smaller master bedroom. I knew that if I continued to use credit cards this way, I could end up dead broke again.

This was a huge milestone for me in my journey to financial independence. I realized that I will never “arrive” at being good with money. I will forever be in “recovery” as a Spender, and one of the things that I need to continue to do to keep myself in recovery is to stay within my fence.

I know that staying inside the fence works for me. I know that if I use cash and set a budget with Mark, I stick to it and feel safe. I don’t know why I always try to play with fire, but whenever I do, I certainly get burned! As a well-known expert in the field of frugal living, it’s hard to admit that I still have the ability to overspend. But how helpful would I be if I said I was perfect?

A common reason that Spenders continue to spend is that you lie to yourself—you tell yourself that you can stop spending, but the spending continues. You feel out of control, and that feeling leads you to spend more, and you continue to feel out of control.

If I were to tell you that I have it all figured out, I would be defeating the entire purpose and message of this book. I know that I will always be a Spender, but after seven years of successful budgeting and not owning a credit card, I thought I was strong enough to have one.

The reality is that I am not, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But what I do know is that if I set a budget and make sure I am safe within my fence—I do amazingly well! I got us into over $40,000 worth of debt, and I got us out of over $40,000 worth of debt. I got us in debt by using credit cards, and I got us out by not using credit cards.

Life inside the fence

I decided to run this experiment on myself to see if I am strong enough to live outside the fence, to see if so many years of good financial habits had changed me. Unfortunately, the conclusion is that despite my excellent financial habits and new ways, it’s dangerous to reintroduce some of my old temptations, because I fall right back into my old ways.

This is why this book is called The Recovering Spender and not The Recovered Spender. To be in recovery, you must constantly be trying to better yourself. If I were recovered, I would be able to use a credit card and not overspend.

I am in recovery, which means that I am in a constant state of trying to better myself and improve my spending habits. I realize that one bad turn can lead me down a road that I do not want to travel. One bad financial move can turn into a financial disaster for anyone who is a Recovering Spender like I am.

If you find something that works and helps you stay inside your fence, by all means continue doing it! Despite how much time you’ve been inside your fence, there is always danger on the other side. I much prefer to stay within my fence, stay out of debt, be happy and financially fulfilled by keeping a budget, and live the rest of my life as a Spender in recovery.

Lauren

Lauren Greutman is the frugal living expert behind the popular money saving blog laurengreutman.com (formerly iamthatlady.com).

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