Right now, I’m sitting in a church with people who don’t make very much money, and they think it’s because they have a kind of disease. Not like multiple sclerosis or AIDS, but something psychological, or in the soul.
This is Underearners Anonymous. Like Narcotics Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous, it mimics Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s part of an emerging view that being broke is a sickness — a “money disorder,” the way anorexia plagues those who can’t eat.
Seventy-five percent of Americans say money is their top worry. It’s pervasive, too, as scientists say having more money doesn’t necessarily correlate with having more problems, like Biggie wanted you to know. Richer people tend to be happier, and a ramen-eating, coupon-clipping life disrupts marriages and generally bums people out.
So Underearners Anonymous is the solution — it claims. And it’s catching on. On any given weekday, there are ten or twenty meetings worldwide, from Los Angeles to Berlin to Israel, and most days there’s one in Colorado.
To keep it all on the down low, I’m not saying where my meeting is or when. I will say that the people in my meeting don’t look like they’re giving hand jobs to buy baby food — they just aren’t balling. One guy, in real estate, says he’s never made more than $30,000 a year. A woman, in sales, says she wastes her time caring for others, instead of earning for herself. They didn’t feel abandoned by the economy; they felt abandoned by themselves.
Then the uncomfortable part of the meeting happens. The group discussion comes around to me, and I feel compelled to say the following.
“Hi, my name is Reilly, and I’m an underearner.”
Hi, Reilly, they say.
I feel like a little cuck saying it. But is it true? Am I an “underearner”? Am I sick? It is true that I’m not stacking paper like Drake, but I’ve always thought it’s because, A) I genuinely think greed fucks up civilization, B) I’m interesting in higher, hippier things, like nature and the siblinghood of humankind and bullshit like that, C) it’s not my fault because we’re in a slanted economy that keeps millennials down and stuck in low-wage jobs and D) this is a butt-sucking epoch to be a journalist like me.
But some symptoms of “underearning” hit home. The symptoms are, basically:
1. Wasting time you could be using to reach your goals.
2. Ignoring your own ideas.
3. Compulsively needing to prove yourself.
4. Clinging to useless possessions.
5. Overworking / underworking.
6. Giving away your time.
7. Undervaluing or underpricing.
8. Isolation, working by yourself.
9. Physical ailments, like malingering.
10. Misplaced guilt or shame about earning.
11. Not following up on leads.
12. Creating conflict at work on purpose.
I relate to at least 9.5 of those. So that’s why I decided to give Underearners Anonymous a try. But before I went, I called an expert to see if the UA concept makes sense — or cents.
“It looks really good to me,” says Marc Allen, author of The Millionaire Course and self-proclaimed rags-to-riches 1 percenter. He used the AA model to stop drinking, and says his income doubled each year for the next four years. It helps people to focus and orient themselves to their goals. “You can apply the 12 steps to so many things, including money.”
This isn’t just about dough. You can be rich and still feel spiritually broke; take for instance the rampant depression among lottery winners.
"When people come for help around money, it goes so much deeper than what is in their bank accounts,” Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, told the New York Times. “It's a portal into unresolved family histories and generational history patterns."
The idea that you’re sick if you’re skint ain’t new. A group called Debtors Anonymous was founded in 1976. And, to this day, it holds meetings all over — about 10 a week in Colorado, 30 in New York and 40 in the L.A. area. It mainly focuses on getting out of debt. But Underearners is new in that it focuses not on not debting, but on earning.
It sprung from Debtors Anonymous; “Adam,” the UA founder, was so broke 10 years ago he had mice in his house and a view of a dumpster. Then, sitting in a Debtors Anonymous meeting, he heard a fellow debtor complain about how, even though she didn’t owe anything, she still wasn’t making money. Adam decided that if debt was a disease, so was not earning.
At UA, the programs don’t dwell on daddy issues. They’re crazy practical. You keep track of your hours. You set goals. You plan concrete next steps. You’re trying to transition from what they call “B jobs” — jobs that pay the bills — into jobs that let you do what you love.
Also, they talk about God a lot. The Lord, apparently, doesn’t bless the poor. He wants you rolling dough like a pizza man. The Lord giveth, and the Lord giveth more.
Does UA work? The folks in my meeting say it does. One guy says he’s on track to make more this year than he ever has. A lady says it’s helped her take control of her life.
Whether you’ll add zeroes or not, it can’t hurt. Underearners Anonymous could be called Underachievers Anonymous; for many, money is just a symptom of deeper problems that have to do with self-esteem, laziness or mental illness. UA won’t solve all that overnight; but it might make you feel less lonely.
For my part, it worked. Just being aware of money helped me get more. When, last night, an editor emailed and offered work, I brought up money immediately, something I normally wouldn’t do, and asked if we could push up my rate a little. He said we could.
I resolve to keep this cash flow going by being way more assertive. As soon as I’m done typing these words, I’m going to ask another one of my editors for a substantial raise, or else I promise to post pictures from that weekend in Tijuana when (REMAINDER OF PARAGRAPH LOST DURING EDITING PROCESS.)
I don’t know if I’ll go back to Underearners Anonymous. But I am more willing to see money problems as an illness. If you’re thinking your own poverty might be in your head, check out UA meetings. And when you do earn more, send a percent of your new earnings my way. Baby, I’m worth it. I’m getting healthy. And God wants me to be rich.