Money Shrink Makeovers

We sent a pair of successful professionals with serious wallet woes to a money therapist for some tough love about their freewheeling financial ways.
hand with jewelry and money
Bill Diodato

Think you have issues with money? NYC-based money therapist Lora Sasiela takes two financially wayward women and points them in the right direction.

I'm Six Figures in the Red!

Danielle Liss, 34, lawyer, Las Vegas

INCOME: $100,000 plus bonus


DEBT: $142,000

I'm a stress shopper, and I've always had a thing for shoes. When life got crazy, I'd hit DSW on the weekend and buy a few new pairs. Then two years ago, my grandmother, with whom I was very close, suffered a massive stroke. After getting the news, I found myself at Saks, where I spent $1,300 on a pair of Valentinos, Cole Haans, Kate Spades, and two Choos. Two days later, I bought another pair of Spades and some Stuart Weitzmans. Thanks to shopping trips like that, plus student loans, I'd racked up $167,000 in debt. Just think about that number—it's a monster. But I didn't think about it much because when I did, I'd start shaking and get a stomachache. Though I never missed a minimum payment—not once—I just couldn't admit to myself what I knew deep down: I was a shopping addict.

A few months later, after I visited my grandmother in the hospice, I went on another shopping binge. I went directly to DSW because I just had to have a pair of gold peep-toe slingbacks. It was urgent; they would complete my collection. I was deeply grieving, and all I could think to do was buy shoes. Walking out of the store with them, I felt relief.

But it wouldn't last. Soon after, Citibank sent me a notice: They were tripling my interest rate to 27 percent. I couldn't pay it, even though I was making $100K plus bonuses as an attorney. I created a budget spreadsheet, but looking at it made me sick. Then a friend challenged me to blog about the entire experience. I realized then that if I was ever going to get out of this mess, I had to be honest with myself. So I started "The Danielle Deficit." Blogging about my spending problem was therapeutic and a really great way to hold myself accountable. My friends tracked my progress and cheered me on. I got credit counseling and learned to cut out shopping, vacations, and other frivolous expenses. I replaced my shoe-buying high with the debt-killing high. Last year, I paid off $20,000.

I still treat myself now and then at Kohl's (with coupons!). I feel so much happier and more alive now than when I dulled all my feelings with shopping trips. But now I've grown so obsessed with killing my debt that I'm not saving anything. My husband and I had a leaky sink a few weeks ago, and I was panicked because, dear God, what if we needed a plumber?! We should be saving for an emergency fund and retirement—and, someday when this is all over, for a nice Mediterranean cruise together.

The Shrink Says: Danielle is a compulsive shopper. If she goes right from the hospice to a shoe store, that's a clear attempt to self-soothe, to distract from an emotionally intolerable place. We talked about how she's made a lot of strides, but because she's white-knuckling it, she's at a high risk for relapsing if she doesn't explore what's behind the behavior. It's like going on a strict diet—it's not long before your face is in a chocolate cake. Danielle needs to start putting away a small sum each month, as little as $25, to establish the habit. She should read about compulsive shopping, to reflect on how she got here. And she needs a support network she can call when she's tempted to hit the mall.

Danielle's Takeaway: I want big savings and big debt payoff—right now! But I know I can't have both, so I'm going to start small and save $100 each month. I've tried Debtors Anonymous, and it didn't resonate with me because it felt too remedial. But I will explore joining a local money club. I also bought a book Lora recommended, April Benson's I Shop, Therefore I Am, about compulsive shopping. I'm going to start on it right after I finish the latest Jennifer Weiner, which just arrived in the mail.


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I Haven't Paid Taxes in Six Years!

Maureen Tkacik, 32, freelance finance writer, New York City

INCOME: $50,000? ("I guess it could be a lot more")


DEBT: $20,000

I've never had a lot of money, and I never wanted it. I spent some time growing up in China in the '80s, where life for most was incredibly spartan. I often wondered how little I really needed to get by on. I worked hard, got into a great Ivy League school, but quit two years in when I ran out of money. When I considered the tuition bill, it dawned on me: There's no way I'm going into that kind of debt. It may have been the only fiscally responsible decision I've ever made. I wasn't worried about succeeding without a degree. I was a quick study and was already getting stories published.

I love my work. I'm at my most engaged when I'm obsessing over a story. When you're like that, money can seem like an afterthought, so I don't actually know how much I make. I guess about $50,000—not sure. It could be a lot more. My rent is cheap, and my only real indulgences are books. They're usually for work, so I always think I'll write them off, which is funny because I haven't paid taxes in six or seven years. I have a complicated system of rationalization that involves Alan Greenspan, the Bush administration, and TARP. But more likely, I just need to get my shit together. I think I owe the IRS somewhere around $20,000. I know I'll have to pay it someday and that in the meantime the penalties and interest are building up. I want to get working on that, maybe sell a book to cover it. But I just haven't been motivated to do it. It doesn't help that I hang around people with the same bad habits as mine, who live paycheck to paycheck, without 401(k)s or savings.

The Shrink Says: It's amazing that Maureen has become successful in an intellectual field without a degree. But she's something of a "money monk"—she keeps money far away, detaches from it. She restricts herself to maintain control, possibly because she's afraid that if she allows herself to have more money, to want it or enjoy it, she'll become "The Man," the kind of person she disdains as wealth-obsessed. I suggested a good accountant to help her begin paying what she owes. I also recommended she outsource her receipts—shove them into a folder and send them to, which will scan and log all of them for her.

Maureen's Takeaway: Money just isn't where my priorities lie. Still, I e-mailed the accountant and set up a meeting. I'm afraid the IRS is going to make an example of me. But when I consider it rationally, I know they'll likely help me set up a payment plan, and the punishment will be the interest and fees I've accrued.

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