Americans awash in holiday bills could be forgiven for thinking they have a spending problem. But increasingly, those drowning in debt are seeing their plight as a moral one - a spiritual failing demanding personal reform on a higher level.
That's why more and more are turning to spiritual advisers - specifically, faith-based financial counselors who teach spiritual principles for money management - to help them change their ways.
The demand for such services is skyrocketing. In 2004, more than 41,000 families went to church for a 13-week money management seminar called Financial Peace University, up from about 28,000 in 2003. Crown Financial Ministries - which runs its own 12-week church-based seminar urging participants to apply religious convictions to financial decisions - worked with 900,000 Americans in 2003 and 1.1 million in 2004; it projects a 25 percent increase in the US in 2005.
Worldwide, about 8 million have participated in Crown Financial seminars.
January marks peak season for faith-based financial counselors, who typically face a surge of repentant spenders at the start of the new year. Crown Financial, for example, expects 350,000 participants in its January seminars in the US - one quarter of the year's projected business. Other financial ministries say a 20 percent boost in demand at the start of the year is normal.
In such seminars - along with books and one-on-one counseling - consumers with credit woes learn to think of debt as a barrier keeping them from a right relationship with God and neighbor.
Many of today's popular financial ministries are Christian. "Within the church, people are looking to know God's plan for their money," says Beth Tallent, spokeswoman for Financial Peace University, a program linked to syndicated Christian radio personality Dave Ramsey. "At no point did He say debt is sin, but He didn't have anything good to say about it."
But spiritual traditions across the board tend to agree that living a moral life means keeping debt to a minimum.
Most also concur that borrowing to meet a basic need is no cause for repentance. In fact, some traditions make a point of lifting the stigma from debtors. But most also suggest that unnecessary debt can compromise moral values and may be a sign of priorities already out of whack.
In Judaism, for instance, the Talmud says a man is judged by the way he manages his "kiso, koso & ka'aso" - that is, his wallet, his cup (alcohol), and his anger. And since the Torah requires Jews to make provisions for the less fortunate, hefty interest payments on credit cards could interfere with that moral duty, according to Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, president of the Rabbinical Assembly for rabbis of Conservative Judaism.
"This is a modern phenomenon - going into debt not because of need but because of desire," says Mr. Rank. "Whether [a man] has managed his resources to help others is the basis for judgment. That would come way before spending on yourself."
Islam, which prohibits charging of interest on loans, sees an even more primary moral problem with debt. Credit cards are permissible for Muslims only if the user pays off the entire balance before finance charges begin, according to Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, an imam and leader of workshops on Islamic finances at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, Calif. To go further, in his view, is a failure of self-discipline that's apt to manifest itself again as weakness when moral backbone is required.
"The fact that you could not control your desire, there is the problem," says Sheikh Fazaga. "Part of having good character is to control your desires, not let them control you.... You are not rich because of how much you have, but you are rich because of how much you can do without. You want to be able to say, 'I am so rich, I don't need what Bill Gates has.' "
Christian financial advisers are quick to point out that Scripture is replete with references to money. With 2,350 verses addressing money in the Christian Bible, no topic garners more attention except love. So it follows logically in their eyes that a happy, well-lived life means abiding by biblical codes for handling money, and that means borrowing only when absolutely necessary.
Perhaps the most often quoted verse among Christian financial advisers is Proverbs 22:7, which says, "The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." Armed with this citation and others, counselors impress on clients that such servitude - for instance, in the form of minimum monthly credit card payments at rates that can exceed 25 percent - is more than a frustrating financial situation.
"God did not intend for His people to live in bondage," says Tallent. Overly indebted people "live in constant fear that their car is going to be taken away, or they're going to lose their house. They live in constant fear, and that wasn't what God intended."
Like religious converts who have sought a new way after hitting "rock bottom," many debt-saddled individuals turn to debt counseling only when the problem is extreme. The average client at Christian Credit Counselors Inc., for instance, is in his or her mid-30s and owes between $25,000 and $35,000 on credit cards.
"They've overextended themselves, and they don't want to turn off their credit cards," says manager Jeff Baker, who has watched Christian Credit Counselors' client base double to 3,000 since April.
"They say, 'I can't make these payments, I've got these credit cards,' and everything starts falling apart. That's when they seek help."
At that point, moral consequences may have already taken root. As soon as debts become burdensome, the borrower runs a heightened risk of telling coverup lies that can wreck marriages and other relationships, according to Howard Dayton, cofounder of Crown Financial Ministries. But in his view, the converse is also true: Those who cultivate contentment to live within their means and without borrowing stand a better chance of maintaining their relationships in good order.
"As folks get their financial lives in order, they're in a position to be more generous," says Dayton. Once free from "servitude" to the lender, he said, "you can do the things that are most important to you and your family."
It's a point on which even the most diverse of traditions can agree.
"It's not a spiritual problem [to owe] as long as you pay it back in a timely fashion without letting it keep you from other things you should be doing," says Mary Gelfand, copresident of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. "But if it keeps you from having money for your child's tuition or from paying for your aging mother's needs, then what you have is a spiritual problem."