Recovery wasn’t just about facing up to my substance use problem; it was also facing up to the consequences of my actions in active addiction. Like the $30,000 worth of debt that I’d accumulated. 

Payday loans, credit card debt, store cards, bounced checks, overdrafts, collection agency debts — I had them all, accompanied by a lot of shame and denial.

At the end of my addiction, I did whatever I could to get money. I sold my belongings (including sentimental items), took out payday loans, pawned electronics and jewelry, and wrote checks that I knew would bounce. There was never enough money to meet my insatiable desire for alcohol and drugs. I felt so ashamed that my life had come to this.

Getting sober was the first step toward living a healthier life, and I had to go through the process of finding recovery before I could improve my relationship with money. That phrase “peeling back the onion” — even though it makes me cringe because it feels so trite  — is a great analogy for the process of recovery. 

I had to first find some stability, learn how to take care of myself, and foster healthy relationships. 

Recovery isn’t just about sobriety. It encompasses bringing health and wellness to all areas of our lives: our relationships and how we relate to the world, our finances, and our physical and mental well-being. For me, that meant I first had to stop drinking four bottles of wine a day and taking whatever drugs I could get my hands on. Only then could I tackle the money issue. I had to first find some stability, learn how to take care of myself, and foster healthy relationships. 

It took about six months of sobriety before I could take on my financial situation. 

You may have heard the term “financial sobriety” bandied about in recovery circles, but are unsure what it means.  It simply refers to finding manageability, around our relationship with money, which is one of the components of a healthy overall recovery. 

“Financial sobriety” simply refers to finding manageability around our relationship with money.

Financial sobriety requires a number of key steps and a lot of self-compassion. My overall advice would be to stop blaming and shaming yourself — treating yourself this way won’t help you get a handle on your finances, it’ll only make you feel worse. And that’s futile in this situation. I used five strategies to overcome my debt and improve my relationship with money.

1. Facing the situation

The Buddhist phrase “the only way out is through” is so true, in both finding sobriety and facing our debts. As much as we want to bury our heads in the sand, we have to open those letters (or emails) that have piled up, answer the debt collection calls, and look at our bank accounts. I let unopened letters accumulate for months and ignored phone calls. I was in complete denial about my financial mess. The only way to overcome it was to take that first step of facing it. Open the mail.  A piece of paper cannot hurt you.

2. Create a picture. 

Once you’ve opened all of the bills, sort them into piles based on who you owe money to. You can do the same sorting process digitally if you have bills through email or a portal of some sort.  

At the top of each pile, I organized by the most recent bill. I was then able to make a list of all my debts. I also called the company to find out the current figure with accrued interest. They do appreciate you being open with them. So tell them — if you feel comfortable doing so — that you’ve been unwell/unable to respond and you are now addressing the debt. With all of this information organized and in front of you, it is easier to devise a plan.

3. Make a plan. 

Looking at the amount of debt you owe might be overwhelming. That’s okay. Remember that you don’t have to tackle it all at once. Recovery, and financial sobriety, is about making small, incremental changes that lead to lasting, big changes. If that means making payments of $5 or $10 a week, it’s still progress. I created a simple budget for my income and expenses and figured out what I could reasonably live off of. Anything leftover went toward my debt. 

4. Ask creditors to work with you

The goal of debt collection companies or banks is to recoup their money, so they will typically work with you to achieve that goal in a way that is sustainable and achievable. Some ways they might do this is:

  • Agreeing to a low repayment amount. Sometimes you can ask for a payment of just $5 per week.
  • Removing all interest charges and late fees.
  • Negotiating a lower settlement amount — often insurance companies and medical providers will reduce the debt by half if you are able to pay in full at the time you call. 

Stick to your budget and don’t overcommit. You will want to pay down that debt quickly, and the representatives for these companies are persuasive, but you want to stick to your budget. 

5. Examine your relationship with money

Just like anything else we encounter in recovery, you might find that you have a dysfunctional relationship with money, too. I did. I lacked responsibility and had a number of irrational fears. I worked through some financial books (I love Wild Money and You’re a Badass at Making Money) and found that I carry an unreasonable amount of fear around money. I had a scarcity mindset and was worried that money wouldn’t stick around, so I spent it as soon as I earned it. I also carried my parents’ mindset and beliefs around debt — that it was something to be avoided. They also believed I was terrible at handling money and supporting myself, which only compounded my feelings of shame about my debt. Unpacking all of this and letting go of other people’s opinions about money and debt was incredibly freeing. It led to a change in how I view and handle money. 

It’s worth noting that living debt-free is a privilege that might not be achievable for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve financial sobriety.  Financial emergencies come up and that is a reality of life. The goal here is to work toward bringing healthy decisions to all areas of your life, including money.