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I was coming down from a flare-up of my bipolar disorder when my therapist suggested I drop in on an Underearners Anonymous meeting. Like many people who live with bipolar, I’d racked up a ton of credit card debt during my most recent hypomanic phase, and the come-down left me depressed and unable to go to my job, which I eventually quit because I couldn’t get out of bed. I was broke, but past the age where it’s considered cute to be broke, so I stopped into my local meeting.
I met an eclectic crew of broke artists, in-between-jobs actors, and unemployed PhD students, most of them much older than me. A few members shared their struggles from the past week: short on rent, late on bills, working incessantly but not paid on time—all byproducts of the “disease” of under-earning. At the end, we held hands in a circle and I felt better admitting I had an embarrassing problem. But I didn’t like the idea that the problem was me.
Underearners Anonymous (UA) is “a peer support group that helps people who are either not earning enough money to meet their needs, or who are not living up to their potential,” says 30-year-old Jeremy from Sydney, who has been a member for three years and asked to keep his last name private due to the traditions of UA. UA is part of the group of member-run, 12-step meetings like Workaholics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous (which concentrates exclusively on helping people get out of unsecured debt). However, as Jeremy explains, “some people with money problems never incur debt, but are nonetheless in a world of financial hurt.”
Underearners Anonymous follows the general structure of many other 12-step programmes, and takes a lot of its core tenets and literature from Alcoholics Anonymous. Part of the meeting is reserved for members to discuss their progress or struggles with other members, followed by a speaker, and then a closing prayer. “What brings most people to UA is a chronic lack of money,” Jeremy says. “For example, when I came to UA, I was struggling to pay rent and any unexpected expenses would leave me desperately scrambling for loans from relatives.”
It’s a designated space for under-earners and underachievers to find support and community that “emphasises the importance of self-care,” Jeremy adds, “and not working oneself into the ground in the pursuit of money or prestige. [UA] uses the twelve-step process to help people detach themselves from the emotional barriers that are trapping them in a hopeless situation.”
Unlike a personal finance or budgeting seminar, the group teaches coping strategies that focus on correcting the behaviours that are believed to contribute to chronic under-earning. As I learned in the meeting, under-earning is characterised by a pattern of behaviours like working too much for too little and de-prioritising paid work, as well as chronic procrastination. According to the UA website, other symptoms of under-earning include “clinging to useless possessions” for fear of not being able to afford a replacement; social isolation; and physical ailments caused by an ongoing cycle of overwork and exhaustion, which in turn makes it more difficult to earn a sustainable living. Patterns of self-sabotaging behaviours like failure to follow up on employment prospects are also common among attendees. When Jeremy first joined UA, he was living on government unemployment benefits, working over 50 hours a week on side businesses that weren’t making him any money. “The harder I worked, the further into the hole I got,” he says. “I was sleep deprived and racking up credit card debt. I'd joined Debtors Anonymous a few years prior and had some relief from debt, but I couldn't seem to get completely out of the hole. No surprise really—it's hard to pay off debt when you're only earning $30k per year.”
After completing the 12 steps, “things gradually improved and then got a hell of a lot better,” Jeremy says. “I went from earning $30k per year to over six figures thanks to landing my dream job and having my business finally become profitable.” Today, he says his goal in the programme is to become financially independent and “improve my quality of life, so that I can enjoy a decent income without needing to work so much.”
In UA, members refer to under-earning as a “disease” or what Jeremy calls a “process addiction”, a somewhat misguided view of what actually makes some people chronically broke. Jeremy is white, and comes from a self-described “privileged” background. Growing up, he enjoyed access to “excellent educational opportunities” and acknowledges that most of the barriers to his financial success were self-created. However, he acknowledges that for many people, chronic under-earning isn’t merely the result of being a middle-class burnout, or as Caroline Durlacher writes in a 2016 essay for The New Inquiry on UA, the result of being “a tortured narcissist” who’s “addicted to failure”. “I know there are many people who have a much harder time turning things around, whether it be due to financial abuse from a partner, domestic violence, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, health issues, or inane government policies that prevent refugees from working,” Jeremy says. “These type of situations really suck and present a much larger hurdle to overcome.”
Jeremy says UA isn’t necessarily equipped to take on larger, structural issues that keep people from making money. “The general perspective of UA is that regardless of the cause of under-earning, there are generally actions that an individual can take to improve their situation. This can come across as a bit naive, and perpetuates the myth of a meritocracy.”
Though UA could be a life-changing resource for a temporarily broke person like Jeremy, aligning financial stability with a sort of spiritual awakening, the twelve-step philosophy doesn’t offer much for people living in poverty and oppressed by socially enforced structural barriers beyond their control. The concept of a non-denominational higher power, a central component of many twelve-step programmes, “is there to provide unconditional love and support” when some problems “really do seem beyond human capabilities.” However, the group’s focus on under-earning as an individual sickness or personal failing discounts the struggle of generational poverty, a very human problem that a non-denominational spirituality can’t necessarily solve, and Jeremy acknowledges that simply telling people to “try harder” is reductive and unhelpful.
“I know people who have left 12-step programmes and who have maintained and even improved their recovery. Other people leave the programme and then come back some time later in a worse situation than they were before,” he says, also describing the “fear tactics” that keep many members coming back despite not noticing any real improvement, afraid that if they leave the programme they'll "go back to [their] old ways.”
I left after about five meetings. This may have been too few to see any real progress, but I didn’t see the point in going back to a depressing hour of reflecting on all the reasons I was a broke fuck-up with a “disease.” I knew I had a disease—a lifetime of emotional instability and untreated bipolar landed me in the group to begin with, but ultimately I needed to pay my bills and get a new job more than I needed God to “remove my shortcomings.” I’m glad I went, though. I have a job now, I take my medications. I’m still paying off my hypomanic shopping debt, but I’m paying it off consistently and on time. I track my income and spending, stick to my budgets, and with the help of a few online courses I’ve created a plan to start saving. “As one's UA recovery progresses, money becomes less of a concern and underachievement becomes the focus,” Jeremy says. “After all, you can't buy health and happiness with money.” No, you can’t. But it helps. Sofia is on Twitter