underearning

The Men Who Believe They’re ‘Addicted’ to Being Broke

Ashamed and frightened of success and stability, they seek recovery at a 12-step program called Underearners Anonymous

Bryan has never taken off a day of work in his life. Edgar feels estranged from his kids because he can’t stop accepting low-paying jobs that eat up all of his free time. Carol is so afraid of money and stability that she liquidates her savings account whenever it gets too high. Last time she hit rock bottom, she threw everything she had at fancy dinners, expensive clothing and five-star vacations until there was just enough left for groceries and rent. When the dust settled, she sat down in her house and smoked a victory cigarette, convinced she’d conquered the invisible enemy of success.

All of them say they suffer from a vaguely defined “disease” called “underearning,” and they frequent a 12-step recovery program called Underearners Anonymous (UA) to get well. A near-carbon copy of Alcoholics Anonymous but for money instead of martinis, UA aims to help people who believe they’re “addicted” to not making enough money to break their habit so they can start to prosper and achieve their goals. 

In one sense, underearning is exactly what it sounds like — making too little money to provide for one’s needs. But it’s also so much more: According to UA, it’s also an addiction to underachieving or “under-being,” regardless of how much money you make. Underearners often procrastinate, work too much for too little, reject financial help, ignore opportunities or leads, equate self-worth with income and sabotage themselves with actions that prevent them from achieving their “vision.” They’re prone to self-defeating thoughts like “I’ll never have money,” and “I have no real talents,” and even though their jobs might make them angry or depressed, they feel powerless to explore other options and refuse to take action to change. If and when they do cash in, underearners often feel unworthy of their own money, ashamed of their own success and fearful of what it might mean. For levity, many of them refer to themselves as “poor-aholics.”

To break the habit, UA treats underearning like a sickness with a specific set of symptoms, some of which include: 

  1. Time Indifference: Procrastinating and failing to use your time wisely to support your visions and further your goals. In UA, this is also called being “time drunk.” 
  2. Idea Deflection: Compulsively rejecting ideas and advice that could expand your career and increase your income.
  3. Exertion/Exhaustion: Habitually overworking, becoming exhausted and then under-working or ceasing to work completely, often for little or no pay. 
  4. Undervaluing and Under-pricing: Undervaluing your abilities and services and being too afraid to ask for adequate compensation. 
  5. Misplaced Guilt or Shame: Feeling uneasy or fearful when asking for or being given what you’re owed. 
  6. Not Following Up: Failing to follow-up on opportunities, leads or jobs that could be profitable. Beginning projects and not completing them. 

Supposedly, this ailment can be cured with the same medicine any addiction in the 12-Step Fellowship supposedly can: by admitting your wrongdoings, making amends to the people you’ve hurt and developing a relationship with a higher power. Meetings fall somewhere between a personal finance seminar, group therapy and church, with disciples of every conceivable demographic and credit score filling the rooms in search of the elusive “spiritual awakening” that’ll help them kick their habit, pursue their visions and start earning what they’re worth. 

UA is filled with people who have big dreams but little ability to make them happen: servers paying for grad school on $10 an hour; small business owners whose ideas are tanking; artists and writers whose work isn’t selling. Many give up on their dream and sell cars or mattresses instead, the hole in their hearts never filled by the steadiness of a paycheck or the infantilizing “Employee of the Month” plaque gathering dust on the wall. 

Anthony, a soon-to-be divorced 56-year-old with a lustrous ponytail, optic white dentures and a soft spot for Westernwear, is one of them. A dead ringer for a younger, more bloated Richard Gere and the living embodiment of what UA means when they say that “anyone” can be an underearner, he grew up dirt poor and with parents who taught him that poverty was righteous and wealth was corrupt. He credits this belief as what incited his underearning habit in the first place, explaining that the mindset he developed around money kept him “bent on bein’ broke.” Resigned to a low-income lifestyle, he spent most of his adulthood as a depressed, overworked and underpaid customer service rep who never even thought to envision a lifestyle outside of the call center where he worked. At one point, he even turned down a managerial position at his job, skeptical of the amount of extra work he’d have to do and turned off by the idea that he’d be “in charge” of his co-workers and friends. Then, a friend in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting introduced him to UA.

Anthony was already signed on to the spiritual aspect of the 12-Step Fellowship from AA, but it was the practical advice he got in UA that made him come back. The program offers a number of financial planning and goal-setting tools to help its members break their habits and start achieving their visions. There are time-tracking worksheets, instructions for action plans, guided meditations and a particularly useful “Visions-Actions-Goals” worksheet, all mercifully pragmatic additions to the staggering amount of non-denominational praying and requisite God-talk that goes on during meetings. 

By using these and talking to other members about what worked for them, Anthony says he learned to budget his time and money, develop a financial action plan, ask for what he’s worth, and most importantly, see himself as deserving of money and success. Three years after his first meeting, he has a more profitable, fulfilling job as a realtor, a “much closer relationship with God” and a mint Range Rover. Though he’s now “recovered” from his underearning addiction and makes far more money than he ever dreamed he’d make, he still comes to meetings twice a week to stay sharp and sponsor impressionable initiates who struggle with the same insecurities around money and success that he did. “Once an addict, always an addict,” he says. 

Well, maybe. Not all experts agree that applying the word “addiction” to the nebulously defined and subjective “disease” of underearning is accurate or even responsible, and many addiction specialists, financial therapists and personal-finance coaches say they haven’t even heard of underearning, as an official behavior or a compulsion. Thomas Faupl, a San Francisco-based financial therapist who helps people untangle their neuroses about money from a psychological and developmental angle, says he’s heard of underearning, but almost never sees clients for it. “The symptoms are just so common,” he says. “Everyone deals with this stuff to some extent. I’m kind of surprised that it’s being spoken about as an addiction.” 

Faupl says he’d also be “extremely hesitant” to apply the 12 steps of any Anonymous program to a behavior that’s so rarely made by individual choice alone. “It’s not always up to an individual how much money they make or how much they achieve,” he says. “There’s a complex network of social, cultural, historical, economic, political and psychological factors that influence someone’s income, and doing things like ‘humbly asking God to remove your shortcomings’ [Step 7] and undergoing a ‘spiritual awakening’ [Step 12] won’t necessarily make them go away.” The way he sees it, any compulsive behavior is the responsibility of the individual to some extent, but to say someone is “addicted” to their place within that larger system is just another way that we shame people who are struggling to find their place within our capitalistic society. 

Also, there seem to be exactly zero mentions of UA or addictive underearning in public health campaigns, in the movies or on TV. Where’s the fried egg drug PSA for procrastination? Where’s the harried back-alley hand job given in exchange for a lower salary? There’s an Intervention episode here for exercise; when can we expect the one about people who make excuses for why they can’t go back to school? 

Even Barbara Huson, the woman who literally wrote the book on underearning, doesn’t push it into “addiction” territory. Sure, she frames it as a harmful, deeply complicated thought process that can be addressed by increasing self-worth and financial literacy, but it’s never presented as a sickness. In fact, in an email, she says she can’t comment on UA because she’s never been there herself or had to send any of her clients there, either. 

So, if underearning isn’t an actual addiction, is framing it as such just a symptom of the emerging tendency to see normal money problems — the ones most people face — as some sort of disorder?

Athena Lennon, a marriage and family therapist who works with addicts at Passages, a luxury rehab center in Malibu, hasn’t heard of underearning, either, but after considering its symptoms for a moment, she gives the addiction hypothesis the benefit of the doubt. “I’ve spent the last 13 years treating clients for every conceivable type of dependency,” she says. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you really can be addicted to anything.”

According to Lennon, underearning can be thought of what’s called a “process addiction,” or a compulsive desire to engage in a behavior despite its negative consequences. Though they’re not always as visible or easily measurable as addictions to substances like drugs or alcohol, they affect the brain in almost the exact same way and require the same type of intervention in order to stop. In fact, according to American Addiction Centers, the only real difference between the two is that process addictions lack the physical manifestations of substance abuse. Visit any recovery center in the world, and you’re likely to find a recovering junkie or an alcoholic in the throes of violent cravings and withdrawal, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an underearner with anything other a higher paycheck or a more meaningful job. Nevertheless, say Lennon and a growing number of addiction psychologists like Paul Sunderland, who gave a TedX Talk about it, say that process addictions — even to complicated and abstract things like “under-being” — are very real. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re always taken seriously. The invisible nature of underearning makes it hard for people outside of the program to take it seriously as a disease, and like most people who suffer from conditions without obvious physical symptoms, underearners are often written off as imposters, hypochondriacs or attention whores. “I can’t tell you how many people told me this was all in my head,” says Anthony. “No one took me seriously when I told them what I was going through. It made recovery so much harder.”

When he reached the ninth step of UA — the one that required him to make amends to the people he’d hurt by underearning — he was met with ridicule. “What the fuck are you talking about?” his (almost) ex demanded, incensed that he’d dare to call himself an “underearner” in the midst of their $50,000 divorce (which, he notes, he can now afford). “You’re not an addict,” she told him. “You’re just an asshole.” 

No addiction is easy to share, make amends for or recover from, but it’s this kind of reaction that makes underearning uniquely painful for the people who believe they have it. Underearners must fight not only for sobriety, but to be taken seriously for a condition they know sounds ridiculous, but insist they suffer from anyway. Maybe that’s why so many experts haven’t heard of it or why there’s no D.A.R.E for underearning: The people addicted to it have simply grown tired of trying to explain it outside the circles of people who understand them. 

They do, however, get quite detailed when they’re with their people. Bryan shares that though there seems to be no correlation between how many hours he works and how much he gets paid, he “craves” the feeling of having to prove himself to his boss. He doesn’t believe he deserves to relax, so instead, he comes in early and stays late, obsessed by the prospect of being recognized and rewarded for putting his job above his health and sanity. With the help of UA, he’s found the courage to ask for time off and is going to Costa Rica for three days in March. 

Edgar reveals he’s a single father who loves his kids but feels he has to work constantly to support them. Though he’s “missing them grow up” as he flits between jobs at Best Buy, Starbucks and Lyft, he says he can’t get out of the mindset that he has to do everything he can to put food on the table for them. He’s aware that it would be better for everyone if he put his energy into going back to school or toward a more profitable career, but he feels stuck and like he has no marketable talents to offer the world other than driving people with “real jobs” back and forth across L.A. And so, the program makes him feel less alone. 

Then there’s Carol. She’s in the middle of a bitter breakup with her abusive partner who, for years, exacted his control over her by preventing her from getting good jobs and making enough money to leave him. He wanted to keep her financially dependent on him, and told her she was too useless to get by on her own. She says the trauma of her relationship destroyed her self-worth so effectively that she developed a paralyzing fear of success. 

Although there’s no one “type” of person who underearns or sees their habit as an addiction versus a near-universal experience, Faupl says they’re likely to share backgrounds like Carol’s. “There are a number of reasons people develop these kinds of negative relationships to money and success,” he says. “Any life experience that lowers their self-esteem or makes them feel unworthy can do it.” Most often, the culprit is poor parental modeling around money, but adverse childhood experiences, trauma, abuse, neglect, growing up in poverty, having an untreated mental illness, being chronically ill and having poor financial literacy can trigger compulsions around underearning as well. 

Interestingly, so can expectations around gender roles. Though there seems to be a roughly equal number of men and women in UA and both appear to be financially shafting themselves in their own ways, it’s the Anthonys and the Edgars of the groups who speak most passionately about how the low self-worth they have around underearning damages not just who they are as people, but as men

One man shares that underearning makes him feel emasculated because “men are supposed to provide.” Female underearners have it easy, he argues. They’re expected to earn less money, and when they do, it’s seen as a result of a flawed system, not the woman herself. But when a man’s not getting what he’s worth, he’s the problem. His inability to flex his potential — i.e., his privilege — somehow makes him “less of a man.” 

Reductively heteronormative anxieties like these aren’t exactly rare. In 2015, 38 percent of American wives made more money than their husbands, yet men still report feeling twice as burdened by financial concerns in relationships. For some of the men in UA, this has lead to a confusing double standard: On one hand, they’re expected to willingly relinquish the fiscal dominance they’ve lorded over women for hundreds of years; on the other, they’re still expected to pay for dates, take shorter paternity leaves, and well, provide. That’s about as much depth as can be gleaned from the quick-and-dirty confessional format of UA, but those feelings do come up. Certain men in the program aren’t sure how to feel about their changing role in public or household economies, and their insecurity about what makes a “man” augments their already low self-worth. 

That these kinds of discussions are being held in a recovery program for underearners isn’t all that surprising to James Dennin, a consumer finance reporter and MEL contributor who recently went corporate with a job at IBM, in part to avoid the exact sort of underearner mentality those in UA have succumbed to. “There’s a crisis in masculinity and what it means to be a man going on right now,” he says. “Men are no longer the sole providers and caretakers they once were, which means a lot of them aren’t sure what ‘role’ to play anymore. It makes sense to me that some of them might seek out some sort of correction for that through a program like UA.” 

But to Dennin, that’s only a sliver of what goes into the sort of thinking that underlies underearning and the type of person who might develop, then seek to treat an addiction to it. “Particularly in America, we link money, financial autonomy and self-worth in this peculiar, inextricable way that encourages the sort of self-pathologization I notice in UA,” he explains. “With the recent addition of passion and meaning as expectations we have around how we make money (thanks, millennials), we’ve created an unrealistic, self-defeating ideal of who we need to be in the world. People really do think they need to be creatively or spiritually fulfilled by their work, but what we might need — and what might make us more secure — is a job that just, you know, pay the bills.”

“Hasn’t anyone ever heard of hobbies?” he jokes. “Wasn’t Gauguin a stockbroker?” (Yep, he was).

Dennin’s not saying that the solution to underearning is to pack up, get a corporate job and call it a day, but he does have a point. If we can’t separate our self-worth from our income, and we believe we’re diseased if we’re not fully self-actualized in a job that satiates our desire for financial security and fulfillment, why not shift the burden of fulfillment to a hobby we don’t need to do to survive? 

UA might be an emptier place if that was the case, but there are always alternatives: You could see a financial therapist like Faupl who will go far deeper into your developmental and personal history, or you could hire a licensed financial planner who will forgo God and psychology altogether before picking through your spending habits with a fine-toothed comb. But neither of these packs the punch of a group like UA. “You don’t get that sense of togetherness, community and accountability with one-on-one advice,” says Dennin. “You can get a CFP and they’ll ask you what you’re spending and stuff, but it’s not the same as letting down a friend.” That’s definitely true — the fear of disappointing Anthony with my overspending did make me think much harder about staying within my budget next week. 

And, of course, it’s free (it better be — half these people can’t pay their rent). “The best part of any 12-step program is that it’s no-cost group therapy,” says Lennon, noting that rehab at her facility can cost upwards of $100,000, and she charges anywhere from $175 to $275 an hour for private sessions. “You might not get the one-on-one support you need to deal with family trauma, mental illness or severe deficits in self-worth, but the value of free social support from people who know exactly what it’s like to be you cannot be understated.” 

With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter if that support is the direct result of a culture that takes an increasingly pathological stance toward anyone who struggles to profit as their own self-marketed, self-actualized enterprise. Anthony, Edgar, Bryan and Carol come to UA because they feel powerless over their habits, but for them, framing their habits as a sickness seems to have only helped. “I’m not saying it works for everyone, but once you start to see this underearning as a disease with a cure, you realize you can do something about it,” says Anthony. “The 12 steps give you a framework, with very clear, very workable steps to follow. Personally, I’ve found that to be very effective.”