There's help for impulse buyers: call on 'Big Spenders Anonymous'

Do you often spend money to reward yourself -- reasoning that you've worked hard and you deserve it? When in search of recreation, do you automatically head for the shopping center with your credit card?

If the answers are "yes," you just might be a candidate for "Big Spenders Anonymous," an unusual counseling and support group launched last year by the Chicago Department of Consumer Services.

The program's aim is to help impulse shoppers learn how to distinguish carefully between items they want and those they need, while building discipline into their spending habits.

The idea grew out of a debt counseling program offered by the same agency. Program leaders were surprised to find that some of those who had worked their way out of budget trouble were soon back on the doorstep for more help. Some had even celebrated their "graduation" from debt with a spending binge.

Their particular problem, says Nancy Bellew, director of the city's counseling services for debt control, was not so much one of budgeting -- indeed , no one in Big Spenders Anonymous is required to set up a budget --as of an "attitude" about money.

"They tend to relate spending to their sense of self, often feeling they 'deserve' to buy something," she explains. "They're usually winging it from paycheck to paycheck and feel that spending is controlling them rather than vice versa."

Ms. Bellew says that big spenders often approach larger purchases such as cars by measuring the monthly payment needed against their paycheck. Forgetting the costs of rent, food, and other necessities, they may think they can meet it. Similarly, they often look to the credit limit on their credit card accounts and figure that as long as they are under it, they are home free. Many of the big spenders are young -- under 35 -- and sometimes base current purchases on future income they expect from overtime and promotions.

The range of compulsive spending covers every possible area from food and clothes to records and appliances. For some buyers, shopping itself becomes an emotional outlet, according to Ms. Bellew. She tells of one woman in the group who ordered from a store catalog almost automatically whenever her husband got mad at her. The action netted his full attention every time.

Ms. Bellew's favorite example of a big spender is the lady who called her at the expensive, person-to-person daytime rate from Salt Lake City after seeing the Chicagoan appear on a national television talk show. The caller wanted to know if she fit the profile of a big spender. When asked why she hadn't dropped a line to find out, she replied: "I just had to know right now."

Few big spenders, says Ms. Bellew, tend to get much enjoyment from their purchases. The action is more important than the object. Some shoppers regularly buy clothes early in the week, for instance, only to return them a few days later.

The pilot project, funded entirely by federal community Development Block Grant money channeled through Chicago, is a weekly support group that operates somewhat like groups for alcoholics and those watching their weight. The emphasis is on sharing experiences and on mutual encouragement and advice. Most participants have jobs and meet during the noon hour or after work.

First on the agenda, according to Ms. Bellew, is a thorough discussion of the difference between necessities and frills. "Needs and wants tend to get all juggled up," she explains. She tells of one woman who managed to acquire a huge , high-fashion wardrobe but could not manage to scrape together $15 or $20 for an ironing board.

Every member of the group is encouraged to start a savings account and tag it with a goal such as paying off a large debt or buying a car. The emphasis, says Ms. Bellew, is on restoring discipline and finding ways other than spending to bring enjoyment into one's experience. One member interested in fashion and design was encouraged to take a low-cost design course. Another was urged to v isit a free local museum instead of shopping.

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