Under-earners anonymous Never get a decent pay rise at work KEREN DAVID visits a self-help group that promises to solve all your problems



23:38 GMT, 18 April 2012

The slim, young woman gazes around the room with the glowing zeal of a convert who has pulled her life back from the brink.

‘A year ago, I couldn’t even afford to go to the dentist,’ she says. ‘Now I’m proud to say I’m booking a holiday to America.’

I am at a self-help group meeting, surrounded by fashionable, middle-class people who are here to tackle an addiction. Yet it’s not drugs, alcohol or even sex that’s on their mind. They believe they are addicted to being poor.

Addicted to being poor: Under-earners Anonymous offers a 12-step plan to overcome financial woes

Addicted to being poor: Under-earners Anonymous offers a 12-step plan to overcome financial woes

It’s tempting to giggle at the idea of applying the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step approach to financial woes. After all, it is easy to see why people are seduced into addictions to substances that make them feel good. But why would anyone be hooked on working for nothing or a wage lower than what they deserve

What sort of person identifies themselves as an ‘under-earner’, in desperate need of an emotional and time-consuming recovery process
Well, quite a few people do, as it turns out. All the 30 seats in the utilitarian meeting room in the basement of a Methodist church are taken.

We are just a few streets away from the designer shops of London’s Bond Street, where shoppers throng as though the economic crisis isn’t happening. Our meeting room is unstylish, but many of the people here would look at home in the bars and restaurants of the West End.

'Even in these austere times, people are
still fiercely competitive and feel the need to put on a brave face
about the state of their bank balances'

There’s a friendly buzz as people chat about jobs and college courses before the meeting begins, and many of them seem to work in creative professions. Other meetings are taking place in other rooms. A man pokes his head round the door. ‘Is this Narcotics Anonymous’ he asks.

‘No,’ someone tells him. ‘We’re the under-earners. We can’t afford drugs.’
A good joke — but it strikes me that it’s almost as difficult to admit to financial problems as it is to admit to an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Even in these austere times, people are still fiercely competitive and feel the need to put on a brave face about the state of their bank balances.
Discussing our financial affairs is taboo in Britain — and yet, let’s face it, we love gossiping about money just as much as we love gossiping about sex.

One of the surprising things about Underearners Anonymous (UA) is that anyone can come along. That’s why some of the people at the meeting are talking about skipping meals just to pay the rent, while others are buy-to-let landlords more concerned with problems with their tenants.

Prosperity, as defined by UA, is not just about getting or being rich. In fact, according to the very American psychobabble on the organisation’s website, it’s not even about money. The website says: ‘While the most visible consequence [of under-earning] is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, under-earning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies.
‘It is about under-achieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.’

This admirably broad definition worked well for UA’s founder, ‘Andrew’, a New York businessman who noticed that every time his projects succeeded, he seemed to lose interest in them. As a result, he was living in a mouse-infested dive, feeling frustrated and angry with himself. Debtors Anonymous already existed, but this wasn’t just about getting out of debt.

He realised he could adapt the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous to career issues, and so UA was born. It started in 2006 and — no doubt aided by the dire global economic situation since then — has mushroomed across America and has now reached London.

Over-worked and under-paid: Under-earners often take on too much and become exhausted, meaning they then have to take time off sick (posed by model)

Over-worked and under-paid: Under-earners often take on too much and become exhausted, meaning they then have to take time off sick (posed by model)

As a recession-busting idea, it’s pure gold. And its founder has been able to say goodbye to his rodent room-mates and find himself a home with a beautiful view and a new career as an inspirational speaker. But has he solved his ‘under-earning’ issues by just exploiting the self-indulgent and gullible I’m about to find out.

The meeting I attend starts with a prayer for serenity, then there’s a reading of inspirational literature. It emphasises the need for us to take direct responsibility for our under-earning — no mean feat when greedy bankers and bungling politicians are just begging to be blamed for it. It is when someone reads a list of ‘symptoms’ associated with under-earning that I have my Road to Damascus moment.

As a writer of children’s books — we’re not all as rich as JK Rowling — who teaches creative writing and works as a journalist as well, I’d felt I was doing all right financially. But it wasn’t just that some of these symptoms rang a bell: it was the spot-on accuracy, again and again, that made me feel my life was flashing before my eyes.

There was ‘clinging on to useless possessions’, for example, including threadbare clothes or broken appliances. That sounded all too familiar.
I thought of the ancient computer cluttering up a desk at home and the cupboard full of broken cameras and stray cables. There was ‘under-valuing and under- pricing’ contributions.

CLASSIC SIGNS YOU'RE AN UNDER-EARNERYou cling on to useless possessions like broken appliancesYou blame others for your financial situation instead of admitting responsibility and taking controlYou over-work to the extent you become exhausted and cannot work at allYou work for free because you enjoy your jobYou work for free because you're too scared/embarrassed to mention paymentYou don't set a fee before agreeing to take on workYou don't bill for expensesYou aren't saving for the future

I’m usually very good about insisting I get paid. But only a few weeks before this meeting, I’d worked for three exhausting hours in a school for no fee, all for the joy of selling a few dozen of my books.

How about ‘over-working to the extent that you become exhausted and then cannot work at all’ I only had to think back to being 23, working in a demanding day job then rushing off to do night shifts as a freelance reporter. I ended up with glandular fever then chicken pox, and was off work for 12 weeks — half of them unpaid.

Back then, I justified my actions as being essential to getting ahead in a competitive career. After all, I started out as an 18-year-old messenger girl and, in less than a decade, had a senior job on a national newspaper.

Later I gave it up to raise a family and, eventually, write books. But I wonder if that time in my 20s when I was scrabbling for a top job permanently shaped my attitude to making money.

Very often I’m so happy to have a job doing what I love that I go flat out and don’t stop to work out if I’m using my time as efficiently as I could be.
In the meeting, I identified with those who described struggling to establish themselves in creative careers — otherwise known as ‘starving artist’ syndrome.

At least when I started out as a messenger I was paid a paltry 3,500 a year — today’s interns are expected to work for nothing. It was moving to hear people talking with great honesty about money — the choices and compromises they make, the fears they have and the traps they fall into that keep them poor.

One woman wept as she talked about her difficulty in making sensible choices when it came to spending her meagre income. Others described their feelings of fear, guilt and shame about confronting employers and standing up for themselves at work.

One man’s voice wavered as he described his steps to gaining greater autonomy in his job, while another woman rattled through pages of notes at high speed in her allotted three minutes to pack in tales of low self-esteem dating back to childhood.

‘Ultimately, it’s all about self-worth,’ one member said. ‘If your relationship with money is toxic, it needs fixing, just as any other toxic relationship would.’

'I've expanded my ambitions to include being paid well. Success on its own isn't quite enough'

UA is no easy fix. As well as attending meetings, you start out on a rigorous programme of filling in time-sheets and setting goals for every aspect of your life. You must pay your debts, set up savings schemes and plan your financial future into your 90s. There’s absolutely no room for the vaguely optimistic, Micawber-ish ‘something will turn up’ approach to financial planning which I tend to embrace.

After the meeting, I talked to one young woman who has been attending UA meetings for six months. ‘It has changed my life,’ she told me. As a freelance designer, her income was sporadic and unpredictable, and she hated negotiating rates. Attending UA meetings helped her talk about money without getting upset or feeling attacked.

‘I used to dread talking about money, and I’d find myself agreeing to work without even discussing how much I’d be paid, which then made it difficult to invoice for the work. Sometimes I’d end up working for nothing because I couldn’t face the embarrassment of raising the question of my fee. How mad is that’

After the meeting, I felt quite inspired, and the other newcomers seemed to feel the same. I also felt proud that I’d come a long way since my 20s. I don’t have a problem charging a fair price for my work and I bill for expenses. I used to leave scary bills unopened, but now I’m hyper-aware of what’s in my bank account.

Most of all, I’ve expanded my ambitions to include being paid well. Success on its own isn’t quite enough.

But is labelling myself an under-earner a step forwards or backwards Do I have time for all that form-filling and meditation I might have to go back to another meeting to find out.

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