Shopping was Jeanne Fioretto's favorite pastime. One whiff of new merchandising or a glance at a "sale" sign sent her blood racing, her pupils dilating and her fingers inching toward her credit card.
"I was a spendaholic," admits the 32-year-old Wisconsin writer. "I would buy a skirt, even though I had a similar one at home, just because it was on sale. I had a compulsion -- an addiction -- to spending money.
"My spending wasn't based on a real need or rational planning, but on the mood of the moment. Being depressed would drive me to the stores. Being elated would drive me to the stores. Being bored was just another excuse to go shopping."
Fioretto's spending compulsion peaked last summer when she went to buy a canoe to paddle on weekends with her 10-year-old son.
"I walked out of the marina with a 15-foot motorboat and a debt of more than $5,000," recalls the divorcee, who at the time supported herself and her son on $16,000 a year, and soon after took a $4,000 pay cut to assume a longed-for job as editor of a trade magazine.
"The motorboat incident scared me. I needed it like a hole in the head, but I bought it. I already owed credit-card companies about $4,000. I realized that I had a big problem."
Rather than fight her budget battle alone, Fioretto decided to try a group approach. If Alcoholics Anonymous can help members lick the drinking habit and Overeaters Anonymous can help slim eataholics, she figured, why couldn't a similar group help her kick the spending habit?
"That's how Overspenders Anonymous (O(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)) was born," explains Fioretta, who in December placed an ad in a local newspaper asking interested people to call her and form a group.
"I have the proverbial champagne taste and beer budget, and I knew I wasn't alone. Both the national economy and people's own personal economies have reached a crisis point at the same time.
"Americans have gotten attuned to an expensive life style with high expectations. They figure everyone deserves a color TV, two cars and new furniture.
"But with inflation they have less money to pay higher bills, and they're going into a depression about their personal finances. The norm in America is to live from paycheck to paycheck."
Six people, ranging in age from 18 to 52, formed the first Overspending Anonymous group. "People older than 52 are less likely to be overspenders," notes Fioretto. "They have lived through the Depression so they have a more realistic picture of the value of money.
"But the younger generation are the first ones exposed to hard-sell TV advertising and easy credit. The problem crosses all income levels. In our initial group we had professional people, salesmen, a secretary, and a homemaker."
Before O(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)'s first meeting -- "right around Christmas-bill time" -- Fioretto "picked the brains of my friends who knew about finances: my credit union association person, my bank loan officer, a home economist I know.
"I didn't want jargon, or the kind of fancy investment advice these inflation-fighting books give. I just wanted simple answers to how a person on a limited income can make it."
With expert help she developed a 12-point plan to control compulsive spending (see box) that she presented to the group. Meetings included discussions of budgets and spending problems, with occasional lectures by guest speakers.
"But the support network was one of the best devices," says Fioretto. "We assigned shopping buddies and a telephone team. That way, if you had to go to the pharmacy for a legitimate purchase and saw some gorgeous thing in the window, you could call your shopping buddy and, hopefully, they would talk you out of it."
Members are urged to bring all nonessential purchases (with wrappings and receipt) to meetings for a group evaluation.
"One Woman brought in a new pair of boots," says Fioretto. "She had two similar pairs at home, one in the same color still in good condition. We asked her why she bought them and what mood she was in. She decided it was an impulse purchase and returned them."
Following her own advice, Fioretto evaluated all her credit-card accounts and devised a plan President Carter would love.
"I took the department-store cards -- the ones I'd charged hundreds of dollars worth of coats and shoes and scarfs I didn't need -- and cut them up. Then I put all my bank cards and travel cards in my safe deposit box, except my American Express for identification and emergencies. It was the only one I had used with any degree of rationality since the balance was due in 30 days."
She made a list of everything she owed each creditor and figured out a budget that would help her pay off each outstanding account, one at a time.
"Then I reopened a very old and long-closed savings account with $5 -- all that I had. Every pay check I put in something -- $2 or $10. I use a deposit as a reward for good behavior, like resisting a big sale in a department store.
"I'm still chipping away at my debts, but I'm getting there and my savings are growing little by little. I'm trying to sell the motorboat, and I think in 18 months I should be out of the red."
Fioretto's son has helped keep her in line. "If I begin to eye a sale rack my son says 'Watch it Mom.' It's kind of a guilt trip.
"He says things like 'we kids can't learn any better spending habits than you teach us,' and 'If you are going to blow all our money now, what will we do next month?' It's very effective in helping me live up to the realities of life on a limited income.
"It's been an adjustment, but I really feel good about it. Life is just as fun -- more so since I'm not feeling desperate about bills. I fill up what used to be my shopping hours with needlework projects. And I have a lot more time to spend with my son."
Fioretto began publishing an O(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD) newsletter. After a recent appearance on a national talk show, she received more than 2,000 requests for help. The newsletter, which includes information on such things as starting a support network and dealing with credit debt, costs $10 per year.
She will send a free copy of the January newsletter to anyone who sends a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Overspenders Anonymous, P.O. Box 243, Middleton, Wis. 53562.
Debtors Anonymous -- a program to help people learn how to get out of debt, stay out of debt and manage their money -- will hold it's Washington kickoff Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Asbury United Methodist Church, 11th and K Streets NW.
Sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women, the free workshop will feature sessions on budget planning, comparative shopping, obtaining credit and the current economy's effect on the average consumer.
Participants will be invited to form DA self-help groups. Participants should bring a brown-bag lunch. For more information, call 293-3902.